Ken Gatten will never know the decision behind the tragedy that claimed the life of a fellow Marine.

Combat engineers were trained to avoid touching any out-of-place objects they came across while on ambush patrol in the wilds of Vietnam.

Yet there it was - a bell just like the type used to summon a hotel desk clerk. The fellow Marine, a lance corporal, knew the risk but grabbed it anyway and started to play with the ringing mechanism.

“Why in the name of God would he push that button?” Gatten of Enola asked, recalling that moment from his tour of day. “Was he suicidal?”

The Carlisle native can only speculate that the Marine figured he was going to die so why not speed the inevitable. Sure enough, the booby trap exploded causing fatal injuries from shrapnel.

This memory coupled with a grim statistic stirred a sickness in Gatten’s heart. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in July reported that 20 veterans commit suicide a day - a number that some argue could be higher.

Not every wound from war is physical. Not every scar is visible. But talking about what happened could provide a release and free bottled up emotions.

Gatten learned this about himself the day he was interviewed for this story. The questions brought back memories from 13 months spent in Vietnam from August 1968 to September 1969.

Vietnam

Born and raised in Carlisle, Gatten quit school at age 16 and enlisted in the Marine Corps on Feb. 1, 1968. He had joined to serve his country and get away from a difficult home life.

Upon arrival in Vietnam, he was assigned at first to the An Hoa fire base about 55 miles south of the port city of Da Nang. Situated in a rear area, it was relatively secure in a valley near a village north of a mountain.

An Hoa served as a refuge for combat troops coming off the line. It also hosted a battery of 105mm howitzers that lobbed shells on enemy positions at night, making it difficult to sleep. There he accompanied the infantry on ambush patrols tasked with intercepting enemy soldiers moving in the darkness.

“We traveled with the grunts,” Gatten recalled. “My main job was to blow up enemy bunkers and booby traps. I’d been in quite a few firefights and shot at the enemy, but I can’t recall hitting anyone. I’m sure I buried quite a few alive in bunkers.”

In Vietnam, some men trained to be “tunnel rats” who were assigned the task of probing bunker entrances with a bayonet for any sign of booby traps. These men also used smoke grenades and pistols to root out and kill the enemy. Marine infantry would call engineers forward to use C4 plastic explosives to seal off underground emplacements.

On one mission, a tunnel rat caught a glimpse of an enemy soldier hunkered down in a prone position with a rifle at the ready to fire on any Marine who ventured underground. The man was trapped with nowhere to go, completely unaware that his rifle had given away his position.

The tunnel rat alerted Gatten who promptly tossed an explosive charge into the bunker entrance causing the tunnel to collapse around the enemy soldier.

Dangers

The scary part of planting C4 was in the approach to the target. Combat engineers could encounter a missed booby trap, a bullet from an overlooked enemy soldier or a hidden nest of bamboo vipers – one of deadliest species of snake in the world.

Known for its ability to be molded into different shapes, C4 can only be made to explode by way of a blasting cap or by a sharp blow from a sledge hammer or some other blunt tool, Gatten said. Marines in Vietnam often used plastic explosives as a fuel source to heat up cans of C-rations while in the field.

Another danger common in Vietnam were punji pits. These were holes dug into the ground lined with sharpened bamboo sticks coated with some form of poison. Sometimes the enemy used human feces to infect the wounds.

Each pit was covered over with dirt and camouflaged. Stepping on the hole would cause punji sticks to penetrate the boot and cut into the flesh. The U.S. military issued boots with steel plated soles to protect its soldiers and Marines, Gatten said.

Then there were “Bouncing Betty” landmines that when tripped are propelled upward by a coiled spring to explode in midair. But the most shocking weapon was the use of children as suicide bombers.

“Terrorism was going on in the world long before 2001,” Gatten said. In Vietnam, the enemy would sometimes strap grenades to children who would fool American soldiers and Marines taken in by seemingly innocent requests for candy and attention.

When the moment was right, the child would pull the pin setting off a chain of hidden explosives wounding anyone nearby, Gatten said. “One hand grenade has the potential to kill three people if it is set off in the right situation.”

Other pitfalls were the result of poor choices. Gatten recalled how one Marine wore a red beret on his head. Together they dug a foxhole for the night. Gatten was seated at the edge while the other Marine was standing in the foxhole.

A sniper bullet came in and struck the Marine with the colorful hat in the back of the arm, shattering the limb. The projectile had missed Gatten by only a couple of feet.

Gatten left the Marines soon after returning home from Vietnam in September 1969. He reenlisted again in 1976 and served until 1978 before departing the military for good. His second stint was at Camp Lejeune in the control tower of the rifle range Marines used to requalify as marksmen.

Because of his own experiences, Gatten discouraged his three sons from joining the military because their service may involve fighting a war on foreign soil. He believes if the government wants to fight a war overseas, then the full weight of the U.S. military should be brought to bear to win the war without prolonging the conflict on the ground.

He asked why the country should send young men overseas to fight in other countries that don’t care about the United States or its values.

Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com 

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News Reporter

History and education reporter for The Sentinel.

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