The Night the Latrine Died

Posted on May 14, 2010


It was the night of New Years Eve 1968. But before I get into what and how, I’m going to start with a little history.

I will not be using names here. I don’t have permission from either of the two major players. Actually I haven’t been able to find either one of them. I, myself, always felt like it was an ethnicity problem. Others may disagree. By no means do I think this is a funny matter. It may sound funny on the surface but people could have been badly hurt.

My Platoon Sergeant was of Puerto Rican decent. My squad leader was of Mexican decent. They seemed to hate each other immediately. Now we had this detail called “Shit-burning detail” that had to be performed everyday. It seemed as though everyday my squad leader was assigned the duties of Non-commissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC). That meant he was almost always in charge of the three-man detail that actually burned the stuff. We did not have Hooch maids that did this. It was our job to pull the cut off 55 gallon drums from under the openings in the latrine, replace them with the cans that had been burned the day before and then burn the newly used cans. To do this you would put on gloves, pull the cans out a safe distance from the latrine, take a mixture of diesel and gas and pour it in the cans. Then you would take a long stick and wrap some unused toilet paper around it, light it and stick it in the  cans. Once the fire started, you would stir the cans until everything was burnt. This was a nasty, dirty and very smelly job. My squad leader took it as an insult from the Platoon Sergeant. Of course, every time one of us were put on that detail we thought it was an insult to us as well. Now we didn’t have to do this everyday. There were those times when we were in the field and the occasion that some other NCO would be put in charge of it. Well this went on for two or three months. Each time my squad leader would get more and more upset about it.

New Years Eve 1968. I had gone to sleep early. I was awoke around midnight. All of a sudden all hell broke loose. A couple of very loud explosions went off and people started screaming. A couple from pain. They had been in the latrine when my squad leader walked in and told them to run. They did not run fast enough and each received some shrapnel. My squad leader had thrown two hand grenades into the latrine. There was a lot of damage to the latrine but it was still usable. It just needed a few repairs. The two men recovered. My squad leader was court-martialed. He lost rank and pay. He also was reassigned.

Now the sad part of all of this is not that the two men couldn’t get along nor was it the my squad leader got court martialed. The sad part is that it happened at all.  Two men could have lost their lives that night.

This was not the only personality/nationality/whatever confrontation. Some occurred because to racism, religion, and even what part of the USA you were from. Probably the most confrontations came from EGOISM. Whether it was “I can fly better than you”, “I’m better educated than you” or I’ve been here longer than you”. A lot of people have good book knowledge but almost no common sense. Many times longevity was a plus but sometimes it was a minus. The situation in Nam was always changing and you either adapted or you lost. At the same time it was to your benefit to listen to experience first and then make a decision. The same is true in everyday life.

I remember this incident well. On New Years Eve there was ‘celebratory’ M-60 and M-16 fire around the perimeter of Phouch Vinh. On this particular evening,  the ‘heads’ smoked some weed and fell asleep. The NCOs were drinking Jack Daniels, as I recall. I think Mr. Daniels played a major role in this incident.
I was asleep when the fragging occurred. I awoke when the Troop Commander came into our quarters wearing shorts and helmet, and with drawn 45. cal pistol. It was a sad affair. I will never forget the look on the face of the sergeant who had fragged the latrine when he was brought back by the M.P.s to clear out his belongings, a day or two later. If he could have rectified the matter, he would have. But it was too late. Fortunately, no one died.