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The Da Nang Morgue

 

By Pat Lisi

 

I forget the exact date, but sometime in the summer of 1969 I was ordered by my company commander, Captain John Woggon, to hop a helicopter headed to

Da Nang.  I was what’s known in the Marine Corps as a “platoon guide” at the time which is basically the 3rd Marine from the top down in line from platoon commander and platoon sergeant. 

 

A few days prior to this assignment our unit, Echo Company 2nd Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment (also known as Echo 2/5) had been engaging Viet Cong and a ton of booby traps in our tactical area of responsibility (TAOR).  Almost daily we were suffering at least 1 WIA (wounded in action) or KIA (killed in action), and some days were worse than others.  The Cong were really proficient at hiding buried things that were simple to create but that caused major damage when they blew up.  For them the word ‘attrition’ simply meant dead or wounded GI’s; either way was just fine with them as it took US fighters out of the field of battle.

 

Echo Company and my platoon (2nd) were still out in the bush country of Go Noi Island and Captain Woggon needed someone who knew the names and faces of the two latest KIAs to go into Da Nang to identify their bodies.  The two that I needed to see had not died in a conventional way.  What happened was one of the men accidentally dropped a grenade and, when his buddy bent over to pick it up to give it back to him, it exploded, killing both Marines instantly.

 

I was within sight of the end of my tour in Vietnam and I could identify everyone in 2nd platoon.  I was a “short timer” for sure and I really did not need to be ‘ordered’ or coaxed into grabbing the opportunity for a couple days in Da Nang!

 

I hopped aboard the late afternoon resupply chopper which was a Chinook Helicopter (the kind with two sets of blades), and I was in Da Nang within a half hour and claimed a ‘rack’ for the night in some NCO quarters.  It was nice to actually have a cot with clean sheets for a change, and it was even nicer to be within a very short walk to the NCO club where I could get ice cold beer and bar snacks.  These were luxuries that we seldom saw back at our combat base in An Hoa, much less in the field!

 

The next day around 1100 hours I headed over to the morgue.  It was hotter than blazes out already and being mid-summer the humidity was crazy.  I could have slipped into the NCO club again and had myself another tall, cold one, but there was grizzly business to tend to and I wanted to get it over with.

 

I was greeted just inside the doorway of the morgue by an odd sight.  A man stood there dressed in nothing but a pair of ‘tiger camo’ shorts and wearing red tennis shoes.  That was it.  He had a few days’ worth of growth on his face and his hair was definitely not Marine Corps code.  I never did identify his rank or branch of service; for all I knew he could have been a civilian.  But he was American, I could tell when he spoke.  But, he was truly abnormal.

 

 The morgue smelled just like I thought it would even though I had never stepped foot in one prior to that day.  It was the formaldehyde and other chemicals used in preparing the corpses for their ride home to America that wafted into my olfactory glands, and I knew I was obviously inside a real morgue.

 

The main ‘work room’, if you will, was air conditioned which was nice!  There was stainless steel everywhere.  The tables, sinks, all the instruments and vessels and even the cabinets and shelves were made of stainless steel.  There was a second room where the ‘effects’, or personal property of the deceased was sorted out and tagged so that it could accompany the body home to their loved ones.  It was all part of what was called “graves registration”.  I was beginning to know why the mortician was so strange.

 

Shortly upon entering the morgue but after I had gawked around for a few minutes, the half-dressed mortician in the red tennis shoes asked me if I wanted a cold beer, to which I was more than ready to accept!  I should have known he was setting me up for something.  I said “sure” and he pointed to a door that led into yet a third room and said “In there.”  The door was stainless steel like everything else inside the building and it had a large handle much like the kind you would see on a meat locker.

 

Sure enough, when I opened the door and stepped inside to get my bottle of cold beer, I was abruptly met by the frigid and dead gazes of dozens of corpses whose heads poked out of dark plastic bags!  Two of them were the Marines I was there to positively identify.  They were laying two abreast on a stainless shelf just like all the rest of the dead Marines and soldiers, and I was stunned for a few moments by what I saw.  The beers were in cases that the crazy mortician had stacked just below the blower in the walk-in refrigerator; I grabbed two bottles from the Schlitz case and got my butt out of their as fast as possible!

 

I shut the door, tight, and looked at the mortician who had a smirk on his face that told me he knew he had just “punked” me and that he was proud of it.  He asked me if the two Marines were mine and I quickly said “Yes”, and then I made my way past him and directly out of the morgue and back to my tent, still crating the two bottles of beer, which I tossed down my throat so fast that it gave me a brain freeze for the next 5 minutes.

 

I was never so happy in my whole tour in Nam to get back to my platoon in the bush.  I had seen enough in Da Nang.  I would have nightmares long after I got home to the US about the dead Marines stacked up in that cooler.  It was the last time I was ordered or volunteered for body ID duty.  The captain let me stay in the bush as long as I wanted to after that day.

 

 

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