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The Smoking Lamp is Lit


By Pat Lisi, Southern Utah Vets Aid


I can only speak for the Marine Corps on this, but in boot camp we all learned a new term.  It went like this:  “The smoking lamp is lit.”  Conversely, when whoever it was giving the command (in the case of boot camp that would be one the Drill Instructors) decided that smoking was no longer permissible, the order would be, “The smoking lamp is out!”  Sometimes, just to be mean, DI would call for all the smokers to line up outside and then he’d say, “The smoking lamp is lit for 1 cigarette, and I’M gonna’ smoke it!”


But basically, this command isn’t hard to figure out by anyone.  Both were meant to regulate smoking (and non smoking) among the ranks and in boot camp it was used as a reward for good work.  I admit, I was a smoker in boot camp and I relished the once or twice a day when the DI would line all us smokers up on the ‘company street’ and allow us to quickly hammer down a few draws off our favorite brand cigarette. 


For the non-smokers there didn’t seem to be much of a reward at all, save for the fact that they weren’t standing out in the hot California sun poisoning their lungs like the rest of us lug heads who pretended to not know the dangers of smoking.  In that sense, their reward was in the fact that they didn’t smoke.


I heard John Wayne use the command, “The smoking lamp is out,” once in the movie, “Sands of Iwo Jima.”  His Marines were getting ready to stand lines for the night on a battlefield that was saturated with Japanese soldiers; attack seemed imminent and Wayne, whose character was Sergeant Stryker”, needed to give his men a direct order not to be lighting up after dark.  Enemy warriors can see the glow of a cigarette or cigar a long way off.  They can also smell the burning of tobacco which is a little harder to hone in on, but nevertheless a target.


By now we can all agree on one thing:  There is good reason for “lighting the lamp” and even better reason to “extinguish the lamp.”  Case in point –


It was the second week in November, 1969 and our company, Echo 2/5 had been in the field for a few days on Operation Meade River.  This operation was huge.  There was an area south of DaNang and east of An Hoa (our combat base) known as Go Noi Island.  There are other stories about Meade River and about Go Noi Island in this website that you can find just by going to the Home Page and entering those words.  Suffice to say that this was an NVA stronghold and many campaigns had been launched in Go Noi by the time me and Echo Company ended up there in November of that year.


Several units of American Marines and Army plus South Vietnamese soldiers had cordoned off the Go Noi area and had trapped thousands of NVA and VC in the middle.  They would have to fight their way out if they hoped to survive yet another “final” operation there. 


It would seem to be common sense that at night one would not smoke.  Not a cigarette or a cigar, not a pipe, and certainly not marijuana.  But, not every Marine was born with common sense.  Still, our platoon sergeant, Sgt. Bruce Olson, warned everyone just before dark every night, “The smoking lamp is out.”  That order meant everyone, including the two Marines who were dispatched out of our perimeter an hour after dark to set up a listening post (LP) a couple hundred yards away from our lines.  Their job was simple:  Both Marines stay awake and alert all night, they be perfectly still and quiet, they do not engage the enemy if they can help it, and they certainly don’t smoke!


The rest of the company was at 50% alert that night, meaning half the men could doze off while the others kept watch out into the pitch black.  We all knew that there were NVA and VC scattered throughout the entire area; they were everywhere and they would be probing the lines of all the various units out there on Operation Meade River to see where they could slip a few of their guys out of Go Noi Island.


At around midnight a tremendous explosion shattered the thick, steamy dark and just like that we were all awake!  The 50% who were already on guard knew that the LP had been hit with something—probably a B40 rocket or perhaps a well-pitched grenade.  No, we all agreed it was a rocket of some sort, maybe an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), but definitely not a “Chicom”. This one was too loud to be a Chicom.  It didn’t matter, for someone had to crawl out to the LP and see what went down since there was no radio response from either of the 2 Marines after that.


Sergeant Olson quickly fashioned a fire team among those of who were on alert at the time of the detonation and at a low crouch, and not wasting any time, the gruesome discovery was made at the listening post:  Both Marines were dead, their upper bodies ripped to shreds by shrapnel and flame.   They made an excellent target, for the impact of whatever it was the enemy shot at them was right between where the corpses lay.  One of the Marines was decapitated by the impact.  Still burning next to the dead bodies was a marijuana cigarette, its pungent odor unmistakable even in the midst of the smolder from the rocket itself.  The bodies were dragged back to the company perimeter; 1 Marine had to carry a human head, inside a poncho liner.


For those two Marines the smoking lamp was out – forever.





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