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MEMOIR: Surfing Vietnam

Mon, 07/04/2022 - 15:19
Photos courtesy of California Surf Museum

During the war, soldiers and sailors took R&R on China Beach, just north of Da Nang. One of the men who remembers it well is Joseph Giannini of Montauk, who attained the rank of captain in the U.S. Marine Corps. Here, his memories of days of combat and days of waves.

September 12, 1965 / 6 a.m.

My last semester at Hofstra University. I'm hoping to surf at Rockaway before making my first class. I've been going solo for a while. At 22, I'm fearless, invincible. I’ve played some football, wrestled in high school and college. Worked out regularly. I’ve been surfing for four years. It's an obsession.

I dress as quietly as possible, trying not to disturb my parents. Grab my Phil Edwards and head down to my Volvo P544. I’ve removed the back seat and keep the front passenger seat pushed forward. Open the trunk and slide the Edwards all the way in. Close and lock the trunk. No racks. No one has a clue I’m a surfer dude. Get in and start it up. Drive 20 miles to 38th Street at Rockaway Beach.

I arrive just before dawn and park near the boardwalk. Walk up to take a look. It’s a cool day with gray clouds hugging the horizon. Light offshore winds and waves that look three to five feet. Go back to the Volvo, undress, and suit up in a diving bottom and diving top. The top has a beavertail with buckles and zips up the front. Pull out my board. Close the trunk. Wax up and head for the water.

The beach is deserted as I walk up to the waterline. I’m midway between two large jetties, each about 15 feet high and 300 feet long. I wade in and start to paddle. The sun is coming up as I head out. The white water is about two feet and strong. I paddle straight out, catch a lull, and make it outside with dry hair. I’m already past the jetties and waiting for a good wave.

A set approaches. I let the first three waves go under and paddle into the last and biggest. Jump up and turn right down a shoulder-high wall. Trim for a short distance. Then up the face a bit and turn back. Back to trim and up and over just before the wave breaks. Nice.

I paddle back out.  I see a set way outside. It’s a sweeper set. Point my board at the horizon and start stroking. I’ll go over the first three waves and take the fourth. I’ve gone about 50 yards before I paddle up the face of the first wave. It’s bigger than expected. I’m up and over and stroking strong for the second wave. Of course, bigger. I go over and stroke for the third. Again bigger.

I’m at a 45-degree angle when I make it over and stroke for the last wave. It’s bigger and walling up. I’m too far inside to turn and burn. I paddle into the trough and start up. Go completely vertical before reaching the crest. Fuck, I can’t punch through or make it over.

I lock my arms and legs around my board. Take a deep breath as I’m pitched backward over the falls. Hold on as the wave tumbles and drags me. White water so powerful I can’t right myself and catch a good breath. When I finally do, I’m facing landward. But it’s not land I see. It’s huge boulders. I’m an arm’s length from the end of one of the jetties.

I look back.  Another set is approaching. I let go of the Edwards before it drags me into the jetty. Grab my zipper to strip off my top. Realize that’s crazy. Open my mouth to scream for help. But there’s no one to scream to. Look back again.

The first wave is closing. Walling up. I dive to my right for the bottom. Deep into the dark. I’m calm. Feel the wave hit above. Tumble forward in the crashing water. Struggle up. Break through. Gasp for air. Another wave breaks and pushes me back under. I struggle to the surface, gasp again.

I’m taking in water. Coughing uncontrollably. Swept along the jetty as I swim for the shallows. Totally exhausted by the time my feet touch bottom. I wade forward, fall to my knees and hands. Crawl slowly to the water line. Collapse. Out of breath. Gasping, shaking. Finally, I catch my breath and rise slowly. Still unsteady, trembling . . . I look around for my board. It’s on the jetty, about halfway out.

I make it to my first class, salt water dripping from my nose. Hair full of sand.

“Joe, are you O.K.?” It’s Vic Cardino. “You look terrible."

“I’m fine.” 

But I’m not. I have a strange feeling in my gut. Unsettling. Fear. I’d met it out at the end of the jetty. I’m no longer fearless. Or invincible. 

My parents move from Massapequa back to Brooklyn. I have been living off-campus near Hofstra, but soon join them. I am moments away from being drafted into the Army when two large Marines wearing dress blues walk into the swearing-in room. “Listen up," one says, and pauses. "We are looking for volunteers to join the finest fighting force in the world. The United States Marine Corps.”

I am impressed. Marines have a great rep. Known to never leave anyone behind. I figure I am going to Vietnam anyway; my chances of surviving will be better with the Marines. Also, Marines would be around water. Waves. I’d be able to surf. I raise my hand.

Rus Calisch photo

Early June, 1967

I arrive via a Continental Airlines flight from Okinawa to Da Nang. On Okinawa, a Marine personnel officer told me that grunts in Nam have an 80-percent chance of getting hit. I’m an infantry officer — a grunt. I’d been hoping my chances were at least 50-50.

I have orders to join the First Battalion, Third Marines, up north in Quang Tri Province just below the demilitarized zone, the D.M.Z. One-Three is part of a special landing force; we go in when and where we're needed. 

Two days later, I chopper in to the D.M.Z. — also known as the Dead Marine Zone. I've just missed a deadly encounter with a large North Vietnamese Army force. One-Three had gone in to help the First Battalion Ninth Marines, who'd walked into a large ambush in the D.M.Z. One-Nine suffered terrible losses and many were missing, some feared captured. After that battle, One-Nine would be called the Walking Dead.

Last night our amphibious assault ship steamed into a large cove and dropped anchor outside China Beach, Da Nang. China Beach is an in-country rest and recreation center run by the Navy. They even have surfboards, stacked against a small shack, and a sign out front: "China Beach Surf Club." The waves are small and there is an onshore breeze. 

After two burgers and several beers, I make for the surf shack. Walk up and tell the attendant, “I’m taking a board.”

“You can’t. You’re not a member of the China Beach Surf Club. And you must be assigned to China Beach to be a member.”

“You mean you must be a squid to get a board? That’s bullshit!” I think, Fuck this. The surf sucks anyhow. 

But the beach party turns out to be a hoot. Our beer ration in the field and on the ship was one can per month for each Marine. On China Beach there is no limit. Every swinging dick gets shitfaced.

Midday, a young, pretty American girl wearing a tiny bikini joins us. I assumed she is an off-duty nurse. Some of these Marines haven't seen a Western girl for as long as seven months. What a brave kid, I think. Could she be in trouble? I stand by, ready to help. But she is treated with respect.

Near the end of the party, Sergeant Strong punches our executive officer, Lieutenant Norris. When I step between them, Norris comes at me. Suddenly a mob of drunk, laughing Marines grabs both of us, hoists us in the air, carries us down to the ocean, and throws us in. 

At dusk, drunk and happy, we head back to our ships. Get back on board without any mishaps. One day of rest and then we chopper back in-country to start Operation Beacon Guide in the An Hoa Valley. From there, on to Operation Cochise in the Que Son Valley — "The Valley of the Walking Dead."

A day later, One-Three hits the beach in Quang Nam Province. The fighting is mostly hit and run. The Vietcong harrass us with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. We call in air strikes and arty, and the V.C. run.

A few days after that, One-Three choppers inland to An Hoi, Happy Valley. While moving in the valley, my First Squad leader, Corporal Andenora, is shot in the right shoulder by a V.C. sniper. We find the sniper’s position on a high hill. He hadn’t taken the time to collect his shell casings.

August 12, 1967 

Corporal Listorti is killed. He’d completed his tour and was due to rotate out on the next chopper. Watching him being wrapped in his own poncho, I think about his parents, back home waiting for their son. As the medevac rises and Corporal Listorti starts his journey home, my right eye started to twitch.

It comes and goes intermittently. It gets worse when his replacement, Corporal Calabria, is killed five days later, just three days after he joined my platoon. Both were M-60 machine gunners. I’ve taken to wearing sunglasses, even in our cabin. 

August 16, 1967

Early in the morning we leave Happy Valley and chopper into the Valley of the Walking Dead. Though this valley is being hotly contested by the N.V.A., we come into a cold landing zone.

One-Three is on a fix-and-destroy operation. We’re looking for two N.V.A. regiments that have been fucking with the First Battalion Fifth Marines.

We move west over small, brown, scrub-covered hills. The morning passes without incident. It’s sunny and hot. Over 100 degrees. Not a bit of shade.

I move Bravo One onto the crest of a small hill, not more than 15 meters high. From there I see the point platoon of Charlie Company. They’re moving across a large dry paddy, at least 400 meters wide. They’re heading toward a large hill covered with dense jungle.

A storm of small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades slams into them. They all go down. Hit, or scrambling for cover. They’re fucked. Caught in the open on the other side.

From this side, Charlie Company opens up, providing cover fire. The N.V.A. respond. Rounds start hitting the hill and whizzing by. We move back a bit. Get low, sit tight, and wait. We’re not in this fight yet.

Our support kicks in: Fighters scream over, dropping bombs and napalm on the N.V.A. positions. Between bombing runs, artillery and mortar rounds pound the N.V.A. But the fire from the hill is incessant. Charlie Company can’t go out to help their stranded platoon. They’ll have to pull back on their own.

The fight continues through the blistering afternoon. It’s a standoff. The word comes down that some from the point platoon have made it back. As evening approaches, the enemy fire starts to trail off. There are wounded and dead Marines out there. Charlie Company, under the cover of dark, will have to go out and get them. I get a radio call from Bravo Six, Company Commander Captain Landes, requesting me to come up for his nightly briefing. I call up my platoon sergeant, Sergeant Head.

“Sarge, I’m going over to see Six. Set in the First Squad and one machine gun on the hill. I’ll be back. I’m staying on the hill. Tell the Second and Third Squads to stand by. I think they’ll have to dig in across the paddy behind us with the rest of Bravo Company.” 

“Okay, Lieutenant. 

I go down the hill. Cross a narrow, dry paddy. Spot the captain with the other platoon leaders and our forward observer, Ron, a Marine pilot assigned to Bravo. They’re in a large vill just across from the hill. We’re squatting in a small circle as Captain Landes begins. 

“Listen up.”

It’s pitch black as I make my way back to the crest of the hill after the briefing. A night attack. My first. Fuck, attacking across that paddy is crazy. It’s too wide and there’s no cover. They’ll hear us coming and cut us to pieces. I reach the top and locate Platoon Sergeant Head.

“Sergeant Head, call up the platoon guide, squad leaders, and gun team leaders.” 

When all are present, I start my briefing. “Battalion is sending out a recon patrol. I’m going out with it. When the patrol returns, One-Three is going into a night attack. Bravo Company will be Point for battalion. Bravo One will be Point for Bravo Company. Alpha on our left, Delta on our right, Charlie and Headquarters behind. We’ll move in a wedge formation. First Squad will take Point, Second, our left flank, and Third, the right. Guns will move with Second and Third Squads. I’ll move with the First Squad. Sergeant Head will move with the Second Squad. Platoon Guide with the Third. For now, First Squad stays in place.”

 “Sergeant Head, you stay on the hill with my radio operator until I return. Second and Third Squads will saddle up and follow me to Bravo’s lines to set in. Any questions?”

Sergeant King, my First Squad leader, speaks up. “Lieutenant, did Captain Landes volunteer Bravo for Point?”

“Sarge, how the fuck would I know? Anything else?” No response. “Get back to your men and pass the word.”

Just before leaving I go over to Sergeant Head. “Sarge, we’ll be moving out as soon as I return. Make sure everyone stays awake, alert, and ready to go.”

“Lieutenant, we’ll be ready and waiting.”

“Second Squad, Third Squad, let’s go. Follow me.”

We move in single file down the hill and across the paddy that separates the hill from Bravo’s position. I settle in each squad, put a machine gun team with the Second Squad. Both squads are facing the hill. While they’re digging in, I go over to each squad leader. Tell them to keep their men awake, alert, and ready to go. Move off to rendezvous with the other members of the recon patrol, seven Marines, gathering nearby.

We’ll move north, past the tip of the hill occupied by my First Squad. Cross a paddy into a tree line. Then west, toward the hill held by the N.V.A. When we return, the battalion will attack, under cover of darkness.

At 0100 hours we leave, single file, through Bravo’s lines. There are two Marines ahead of me. It’s so dark I can hardly see the one right in front. Ron, our F.O., is behind me. We quietly cross the narrow paddy. Continue past the tip of the hill into another, wider paddy. We are in the open until we reach the tree line about 40 meters away.

Voices just ahead. Men whispering.

I freeze. Fuck. It’s Vietnamese. N.V.A., moving. A lot of them. Very close. 

They don’t know we’re here. Yet. 

The Marine in front of me turns and pushes me back. Dead silent. I turn and push Ron back. He does the same. We’ve got to get the fuck away. I’m alongside Ron as we approach the tip of the hill. Shallow breaths, careful steps.

Explosions from the hill.  Grenades and R.P.G.s. Instinctively, we drop to the ground. More explosions from the hill and a racket of small-arms fire. Men shouting, screaming. We rise and run toward our lines. We make it about 10 meters before a burst of AK fire pins us down. The N.V.A. are on the hill. We wait a moment. Get up and dash for our lines. Make it. Take cover behind a small dike. More AK-47 and M-16 fire on the hill. The First Squad is holding on. We’ll have to go over. I get up and run to my Second Squad leader.

“Webb, give me your radio.” He hands me the handset. I call to my First Squad leader. “Bravo One, this is Bravo One Actual. Over.” I pause, listen. No response. “Bravo One, this is Bravo One Actual. If you can’t respond, click once. Over.” Again, no response. I tell Webb to saddle up the Second Squad. Radio my Third Squad leader: “Bravo Three, this is Bravo One Actual. Over.” “Bravo One Actual, this is Bravo Three. Over.” “Bravo Three, saddle up. Out.” I radio Captain Landes: “Six, the N.V.A. are trying to take the hill. My First Squad is holding on, needs help. I’m ready to move over with my Second and Third Squads. Over.’ ”

“Lieutenant, move both squads over. I’ll meet you at the base of the hill. Out.”

I radio back to my Third Squad leader. “Bravo Three, move your squad online to the base of the hill. I’ll meet you there. Out.”  I turn to Webb. “Move your squad across the paddy to the base of the hill. Let’s go.”

We crouch and move quickly across the paddy. Join the other squad.  Get on line. I position myself in the middle of 16 Marines. Look up. Can’t see a thing. Hear men screaming, yelling, in English and Vietnamese. Small-arms fire on the hill. AK and M-16. Nothing coming our way. The First Squad is still fighting. 

“Lieutenant,” someone calls to me.  I look over my right shoulder. Six is standing nearby with two R.Os. “Lieutenant, I’ve called for illumination. Medevacs are on the way.”

A round pops above the hill. I kneel, freeze, look up. Several more pop and slowly descend. Now we can see. The top of the hill is covered in swirling smoke from the exploding grenades, R.P.G.s, and small-arms fire.  

A Marine emerges from the smoke, running and slipping down the hill. It’s Sergeant Head, coming right at me and Captain Landes. He reaches us, says, “You have to go up. There’s wounded Marines up there.”

I hear Six on the Battalion Net, “We have to go up.” Landes turns to me. “Lieutenant, move your men out.”

I shout to my left, “Second Squad, move up.” Then to my right, “Third Squad, move up.” As we start up, I shout, “Stay on line. Hold your fire. There’s wounded Marines up there!” We move up slowly. Still can’t see anything ahead.   

The N.V.A. know we’re coming, know Marines don’t leave anyone behind. They’ll throw grenades, then hit us with small arms and R.P.G.s. We’re facing death.

Nam is 12 hours ahead of Brooklyn.  It’s still Sunday back home. Mom is cooking sauce. Dad is relaxing, reading The Times. They don’t have a clue.

Calm in the darkness.  On line with Marines. Moving up. Not twitching. Ready to die on this hill. Holding fire, we approach the swirling smoke. It’s quiet above. No explosions or small-arms fire. No yelling or screaming. We maintain our fire discipline as we enter the dissipating smoke. Reach the crest.

The N.V.A. are gone. They must have gone down as we were coming up.  Look to our front. Nothing. They’ve crossed the paddy. Disappeared into the tree line. I order Second Squad to take up defensive positions. Third to help move the wounded. We quickly locate and account for all the Marines on the hill. Every Marine in the First Squad is alive, but wounded by shrapnel or small arms, or both. My R.O. is also wounded. Machine gunner Corporal Calabria has been killed by a grenade. The N.V.A. left behind some badly torn bodies near a mortar they were setting up. In the false light of the illumination rounds, the bodies are green lumps. Mounds of soil and earth. Already melting into the hill.

Our corpsmen move among our wounded. Hit them with morphine. Attend to their wounds. We lay each wounded Marine on his own poncho. Carry them to the medevac choppers behind the hill.  We bring Calabria’s body last. Wrap him in his poncho. Last Marine out.         

I return to the top of the hill. See the company commander. “Captain,” I say, “I’m going out.”

“Lieutenant, that’s as crazy as me being on this hill.”

 I ask for a volunteer. Get an immediate response.

“Sir, I’ll go.” It’s Davis, a combat engineer assigned to my platoon.

“Sergeant Head, pass the word, I’m going out with Davis.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Davis, stay on my right. Let’s go.” We move off the crest. Slowly make our way down to the base of the hill. From above, a pop. We freeze. An illumination round. Hear movement to the right. We both turn.  

An N.V.A. trooper is crawling toward the bottom of the hill. He is close by. Clearly visible. Unarmed. Bare-chested. Khaki trousers. Ho Chi Minh sandals. No noticeable wounds or blood. About 18. Handsome. Close-cropped hair. An N.V.A. version of a young Marine.

I grab Davis’s left arm. “Don’t shoot. Use your bayonet.” He moves quickly. Kneels beside the trooper and stabs him just below the left shoulder blade. He withdraws the blade and turns to me.

“He’s dead, Lieutenant.”

The lifeguard station and adjoining surf clubhouse, built around 1967 and 1968.

September 12, 1967 

Still restless and anxious. Since I joined One-Three, we have been on seven operations in four provinces. Covered the length of the I Corps area, from the D.M.Z. down to the Que Son Valley southwest of Da Nang, about 250 miles. One-Three is constantly on the move. Always going into a new dangerous place. Then leaving it for another. We move at a killing pace, returning to our ships for a brief stand-down and to re-outfit for the next operation.

We’ve been back on the ship for three days. While on board I write up medal citations for seven Marines, five for Medals of Honor and two for Silver Stars, for bravery during a vicious fight to hold a hill in the Valley of the Walking Dead. 

Later today, the First Battalion Third Marines, a.k.a. the Home of the Brave — four rifle companies and a headquarters company, over 400 salty Marines in all — will head into China Beach for a beach party: beer, burgers, and franks. After the party we’ll get one day to recuperate. Then we’re going back up north to Quang Tri Province, just below the D.M.Z., for Operation Freemont.

Still wide awake. Eye twitching every few minutes. That personnel officer back on Okinawa had it right about a grunt’s chances out here, but he left out luck. Surviving out here has a lot to do with luck. We were lucky it was so fucking dark in that valley. Lucky the N.V.A. didn’t see or hear us. Lucky we heard them whispering. Lucky we didn’t walk right in front of or right into them. Lucky they decided to abandon the hill as we were going up. Lucky every Marine in First Squad was awake, alert, and ready. 

How the fuck am I going to make it through 11 more months of this shit? 

At 1000 hours, I go down into the troop decks to get Bravo One. Without attachments, machine gun teams, rocket teams, and corpsmen, we’re at half strength. Only 26 of us. They follow me to the dry well deck. We’re moving light. No weapons. No gear. Soft covers. T-shirts. Trousers and flip-flops. We hook up with our two other rifle platoons, the weapons platoon and the headquarters section.

Bravo Company boards a Mike boat. Alpha Company boards a second boat. The stern gates on the well deck open. Ocean water cascades in. After a few minutes the Mike boats start their engines, then are lifted afloat by the incoming ocean.  We go out the stern, into a large sunny cove. Head into China Beach, along with a nice groundswell.

Approaching the shore, then the shallows, the Mike boat powers onto the sandy beach and drops the front ramp. We’re off. That first time, the waves sucked and my Marines got crazy drunk. They needed some watching. Not getting a board wasn't a big deal. This time, it's different. Tomorrow might be my last chance to surf this summer. Or ever.

But this time, good surf: There’s a beach break about 70 meters out. Waves three to five feet, light variable winds.  I have a beer and a burger.

Wearing only sunglasses and trousers, I head for the China Beach Surf Club. Tell the two squids there that I’m taking a board. 

“The boards are for members only.”

“Listen up. I’m a Marine officer. We have been in the field for over a month. I want a board.”

“Again, the boards are for members only, sir.”

“Fuck that shit. Take me to your commanding officer.”

A brief silence. Then, “Okay, follow me, sir.” He starts walking south down the beach. I follow a few meters behind. He’s very tan, wearing only baggies. Nice duty. He goes about 100 meters, then turns right. Heading for — this is fuckin’ crazy — an American-style beach house hidden in the evergreens. He walks to the front door and knocks.

I catch up and ask, “What’s this?”

“This is the C.O.’s residence, Sir.”

A Vietnamese girl in her late teens opens the door. “We’re here to see the commanding officer.” She smiles at him. She knows the squid. Motions us in. We enter a living room and dining area. All the furnishings look American, new, clean. I haven’t been in a house since I left the States.

“Follow me, sir.” I go into the C.O.’s office. Again, everything is new and clean. “I’ll get the C.O., Sir.”

This place has central air. While I’m waiting, a large German Shepherd enters the office. The fuckin’ C.O. even has a pet. This has to be the best setup in Nam.

The squid returns and says, “The C.O. is taking a shower. He’ll be out shortly, sir,” then leaves me. I’m standing in the center of the office, about a meter away from the C.O.’s large wooden desk.

He enters from a side door wearing only a towel.  He looks shocked. 

“Joe?” he says.

“Vic? You’re the C.O. of China Beach?”

“Yes, just got here. Hope I make it out. What about you?”

“Been in country two months with the First Battalion Third Marines. We came here for a beach party.”         

“That’s great. What can I do for you, Joe?”         

“Vic, I want a surfboard.”

“Wouldn’t you rather go water-skiing?”

“Vic, a surfboard.”      
Back on the beach, I grab a Hansen 50/50, heft it under my right arm, drop my sunglasses on my towel, and head for the water line.

“Hey, Lieutenant, surf’s up!”

“Lieutenant, hang ten!”

“Sir, watch out for those tiger sharks!”

I wade in and start to paddle out. The surf has come up a bit now, four to six feet. Winds still light. I make it outside with ease. A good set approaches. I paddle into the last wave. Jump up and turn right down a head-high wall. I’ve gone about 30 meters when the wave closes out. I’m rusty, but not as bad as I thought.

Paddle back out. Catch wave after wave. The twitching has stopped. I look up. Raise my right arm, fist clenched, to the sky, and shout, “Thank you, Kahuna!”

Can you believe this? I’m the only one out in this whole cove. The surf is still building, at six to eight feet. Winds light onshore. I catch another right. Go about 20 meters before it closes out. Now the waves are breaking continuously, the white water powerful. It takes several minutes of constant paddling to get back outside.

One of our Mike boats is about 80 meters to my left. It’s getting pummeled. Pulls anchor to come about and head out. But it’s overpowered by the waves, pushed toward shore, then swept up onto the beach. That’s it for me. I’m out of here. I paddle into a wave and belly all the way in. Return the Hansen to the China Beach Surf Club. Walk back over to Bravo One, now a mob of drunk, happy Marines.
Sergeant Webb says, “Hey Lieutenant, way to go.”

“Thanks, Sarge.”

Seaward, low gray clouds moving our way fast. We have to get back to our ships or we’ll be stranded in the cove without even our ponchos. A line from the other Mike boat, beyond the breaking waves, is attached to the beached boat, tows it back to the water line. In a cold, steady drizzle, Bravo Company boards the boat. The party’s over.

Twitch. I reach for my sunglasses.

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