Blue skies, warships in the harbor—bells, engines, clangs, horns, scent of diesel fuel, the rasps of claxons, tang of the ocean’s ebb and flow—and standing inside the sally port of the brig, the Westpac Murderers who, every couple of months, appeared at our facility. Chained together, hands and arms. And legs. Ball and chain. Like the gangs we saw in movies set in Alabama and Florida and Texas.
I woke yesterday thinking of long-gone days, youth, the USMC, my time serving at the brig, 32nd Street Naval Station, San Diego.
The Westpac Murderers arrived from Okinawa and we screened them before shipping them on to Portsmouth Naval Prison. Convicted by courts-martial, the worst of the worst: murderers among our troops in Vietnam.
Most of the regular prisoners inhabited our brig for hating the Navy, going over the hill to get away, disobeying orders; but these Westpac prisoners toted a different import. Most of the murderers were Marines. Rarely a Corpsman or a Seabee.
The first time the murderers appeared in the sally port, ball-and-chained and surly, I was working the brig’s isolation row which contained cells with a wall-mounted metal rack and thin mattress for sleeping, a washbasin and toilet.
We locked tough guys, rabble-rousers, rule-breakers on the isolation row and certain Westpac Murderers.
That initial time, we confined two of them there. Deemed dangerous and a threat to good order, they spent their time locked in, no windows, one overhead light, let out once a day to shower and once a day for a few minutes of exercise.
My duty at the time consisted of pacing from one end of the long, thin row and back again, listening to echoes of my footsteps on the concrete deck and the metal walls of the cells, watching the reflection of the overhead lights bounce off the deck, smelling the chow when it arrived, as well as the faint scent of feces from the heads. And watching the prisoners.
Three times a day a detainee delivered a tray of chow to each of my Westpac Murderers, set the big silver tray on the deck, then stepped back. Sometimes, I’d take a good gander at the slabs of ham, the fried spuds, the white bread.
An hour or so later, the delivery prisoner would return and pick up the empty tray, or sometimes not so empty, depending on whether the chow could be stomached.
The smoking lamp was never lit on the isolation row. But one evening I caught drifts of tobacco smoke coming from the direction of one of the murderer’s cells.
I couldn’t sneak up on the offending convict. He flushed his tobacco down the toilet before I could capture him. And I couldn’t make accusations without evidence.
I wondered where the contraband smokes came from. Another con? One of the other three Marines who stood duty on the isolation row?
Every shift I watched, and finally hit a lick. When the delivery con picked up an empty tray from the cell, I noticed three unfiltered cigarettes had appeared on the deck just inside the hatch, against the bulkhead.
Ebullient, I yanked the delivery prisoner out of the hatch and reached in to grab the smokes when the big black hand of that Murderer Marine reached down and touched the back of mine. As I looked at him as if he were an enemy I might need to kill, he whispered, “Hey, brother, have a heart.”
We stared into each other’s eyes for what seemed like minutes, me in my half-crouch and he leaning over, our hands meeting over those Camels or Lucky Strikes or Pall Malls.
For years I’ve thought about that experience and scolded myself for the decision I made, for letting that convict keep those cigarettes.
Later I eased over to the screening department where they stored records on all the convicts. I talked the duty NCO into letting me read that murderer’s file. He was convicted of tossing some Vietnamese prisoners out of a helicopter during a soiree above rice paddies not far from Danang. The Marines in the chopper had been questioning the prisoners about NVA movements.
I wondered as I read the file why they conducted the interrogation in a CH-46 instead of in a company or a battalion command post. But I knew the answer to that. In my experience, one of the means employed to make a Viet Cong talk was to drag him—or her—through the treetops while suspended on a cable hung from a helicopter. I’d witnessed that. Or if you had a couple of prisoners, just toss one out a hundred feet up in the air and after he—or she—careened through the air on a very short journey to die on the deck below, the survivor would usually tell you anything you wanted to know.
Then I wondered about my convict on the isolation row, if he’d thrown the Viet Cong out the door under orders, or if he threw him out for other reasons, and then I thought about how war offers all kinds of reasons to kill people we wouldn’t kill under other circumstances.
I hated the war in Vietnam. The mud, the rain, the leeches, the snakes. The lack of sleep, people shooting at you, you shooting back. The fear. And there is never a resolution, one war leads to the next and the next and the next.
I know! I know! Hitler was a monstrous hombre and maybe that war was indeed the good war but In Korea and Vietnam, we just fought to maintain the status quo and in the meantime, lots of deaths and all the aftermath we still struggle with and nothing has really changed. We fight wars and kill and then, in many, many cases, turn around and trade dollars for yen and swap cotton for computer parts with our former enemies.
Before that convict showed up on the isolation row, I hadn’t analyzed how I really felt about what we do as humans when it comes to organized killing. How I was trapped between war and peace, duty and rebellion. For fifty plus years I’ve fretted about this stuff. I’m pretty loyal, and when I agree to something, like an enlistment in the Marine Corps, I am very serious about holding up my end of the bargain.
When that man’s hand touched mine and he looked me in the eye, it rocked me back on my metaphorical heels. Why was I messing with him? Why mess with anybody like we did back then in the brig, in the Corps, in the war? Why? Why lock men up for killing folks when what you do in war is kill people?
It confused me. And still does.