Kent Wonders Remembers LZ Margo (continued)
Only the "Routine" -- the KIAs -- Were Left
The only other thing I can remember in detail was talking to the battalion doctor, not a corpsman. He was the bored MD who a few days earlier had wanted to go with Marines on a “camping, backpacking trip” in combat. He was stressed and doing his best at being a corpsman. Realizing he would better use his skills in the emergency, I suggested that he take some of the most critical with him on the next helo out. He asked me to check with the battalion CO to confirm that it was OK. The lieutenant colonel approved, and off the battalion surgeon went.
Why I remember that insignificant event with the MD during all the confusion, I do not know. Maybe most of that afternoon could be classified as bewilderment and horrific stupefaction of what was going on around us. As the number of bodies increased, lying haphazardly around the perimeter of the LZ, the human cost became irrefutable. The dead were the least of our worries as still more wounded needed to be sent out. As the day wore on, the ambulatory wounded became the main stretcher bearers and when we could spare space on the helos, they stayed with men they had carried onboard for the trip to the hospital. Many of the walking wounded, with tags to be medevaced, meaning permission to leave, walked right back out of the helo to wait and help again and again. After the first couple helos left, I don’t remember asking or ordering anyone to help load the wounded; men just stepped up and helped. Even after mortars continued to fall in the area again!
The last hour or so of daylight became quieter, the incoming had stopped, and all the priority medivacs were gone. Only the “routine,” that is the KIAs, were left to be taken out in the morning. Each body needed to be identified by two or more Marines or corpsmen. So the calls went out to each unit to send people to the LZ to help with the positive identification. The process did not go quickly, and the solemn job had no volunteers. Some units just didn’t know who had died after being dropped off at the LZ. Even after several calls for help with identification, we did not have all 16 to 17 bodies ready. The process continued long after dark with flashlights, even after the Major Lynch put out orders to make the final accounting happen. I helped until I was given a new assignment.
“Lieutenant, you and Captain Divelbiss account for every single Marine in the field and the evacuated ASAP…..Regiment wants the numbers.” Captain Divelbiss was now the S-3A located in Dong Ha. I was the assistant to the S-3b (if such a title existed) in the field. Captain Divelbiss and helpers had already been hard at work trying to meet the medevac, getting names, unit, serial numbers, and medical status. This had been attempted in the middle of triage, ER, and surgery, combat style medicine. That afternoon 2/26 had evacuated about 135 WIAs, per the official records.
I was given one of the radios with encrypted code and extended range antenna so that communication with Dong Ha was possible. I left the CP with a radio operator, found a tree trunk, sat down, and put a poncho over our heads. With flashlight, pad and pen, we started endless lists of evacuees, existing strengths of each unit, and the evolving lists of WIAs and KIAs; all was done with the goal of accounting for every single Marine and corpsman.
The process went on and on. At one point, I was shaken awake by the radioman who was helping with all the above. He said, “You were reading names of WIA and KIA and suddenly you were asleep; the captain is pissed and wants to know where you went.” I suppose we finished. That is all I remember about the night. That day’s official number was 21 KIAs. The “crash” after multiple adrenaline highs had put me into total exhaustion and sleep regardless of the danger.