Words by Joseph Giannini
Illustrations by Jeff Petersen
I’m checking the waves from the cut at Ditch Plains. I’ve been ill and haven’t surfed for two months. Big Wave Dave, a New York City fireman, walks up to me. I haven’t seen him since our mid-August surf session at Block Island – an incredible day. Large waves from an offshore hurricane and a near-death experience for both of us. We shake hands and he asks, “Where have you been?”
“I was bitten by a deer tick,” I tell him. “It put me in a hum. I thought I had malaria from Nam. But I’m okay now.”
“I’ve been wondering what happened to you. Joe, thanks again for pulling me out of the impact zone at Block. I’ve been in a lot of bad fires but that was more frightening than that.”
“I’ve been in some bad situations, and a fire was the worst. I’ll tell you about it later. Let’s catch some waves.” I walk off to put on my wetsuit and get my longboard.
Dave has no clue. I think back two months, to August 15, 1995. Hurricane Felix is offshore and generating huge groundswells. I’m standing at Ditch, Dave and George nearby. The waves are huge and out of control. George says, “Let’s get my boat and go to Block.”
Two hours later we drop anchor off the southwest corner of Block Island. Some of our tribe, hardcore surfers, are already here. I see Alex take off on the outside, drop into a doubleoverhead wave, make a sweeping bottom turn, trim left … We put our longboards over the side and paddle for the break. I watch Jim get barreled on a shortboard. The surf is great: 10-15ft faces and clean. I reach the spot where I saw Alex take off. It’s a large rock ledge. Hurricane swells are rolling over it, creating a steep drop, then a long left wall that seems to go forever.
I position myself over the middle of the ledge and wait for the next set of waves. Dave and George are about 30 yards to my right. I haven’t waited long before a set of four approaches.
Suddenly I feel very small. These are the largest swells I’ve ever been in. I let three waves go under me and paddle into the fourth. I’m facing my own fear when the wave passes over the edge of the rock ledge and I drop down the face. Instinctively I jump to my feet and turn left down an overhead wall. I cut back right, and then turn left again. The wave is still overhead and beckoning. I surf through a startled pack of shortboarders and decide to kick out. I’ve gone about 200 meters. I paddle back to my takeoff spot and continue catching long overhead lefts. Dave and George are getting long rides, too. The only drawback is the length of the paddle back to the lineup.
I’m by myself on the ledge when I hear someone screaming above the sound of the breaking waves, “Help! Help!” Big Wave Dave has just wiped out, broken his leash and lost his board. He is caught in the impact zone and drowning in the whitewater.
Jim is paddling towards Dave, but he has a shortboard. I turn my board toward them and fear grips me. I could drown if I go to them. I push my fear away and stroke with all my strength. Jim is there, holding Dave’s head above the crashing waves. I reach them and shout, “Grab my leash, I’ll pull you out!”
Dave grabs my leash, and I start to stroke for safety, but suddenly he scrambles up onto my back. I try to throw him off, but no way. I’m in the claws of a giant crab. We attempt to paddle together, making little headway. We’re not going to make it over the next set. We’ll get tangled up and drown.
I see a set approaching ominously. I can’t even save myself with Dave on top of me like this. Then I hear the engine of a boat … closing fast. It’s Alex.
He pulls up, and we scramble onto his boat with my board. He turns the bow into the approaching set and guns the engine. We climb over four large waves and out of harm’s way.
Damn, that was close! We thank Alex again and transfer back to George’s boat. We’ve had enough. We pull anchor, start the engine and head back for Montauk. I sit aft feeling nauseous and weak. I figure it must be the engine fumes or else I’m catching a cold.
The next day I wake up feeling miserable, but I hook up with Vic and we meet George at the boat in Montauk. George says, “We’re fogged in. We can’t go to Block.”
“Let’s go surf North Bar,” Vic responds.
“Vic, I’m feeling bad, I’ve had it.”
“Come on, it’s just a summer cold.”
We drive to the Point. I paddle out with Vic and get pummeled for about 40 minutes. It’s my worst session ever. I go home and crawl into bed.
Three days go by. I’m alternating between high fevers and chills. I have the worst headache of my life. Nauseous, no appetite, but I’m falling through my asshole. I’ve already lost 12lbs. I think I must have malaria from Nam. On the third afternoon, my wife Nikki says, “Get in the jeep. I’m taking you to see Dr Kerr.”
After he examines me, he says, “ A deer tick bit you, you have Babesiosis. One more day without care, and I’d have had to hospitalize you.”
One more day without medical care and I might have met the Big Kahuna. Dave doesn’t realize how close I came to not having the strength to help him. Somebody up there must like him.
Now, eight weeks later, I paddle to Ditch’s outside break. I’m still fighting the Babesiosis, but the waves are user-friendly. Light northwest winds. Head-high-plus and clean. I need to surf to get my physical strength back and some free therapy. I catch several set waves. Dave paddles over and says, “So tell me about that fire you were in.”
“Napalm,” I respond.
“What happened?” We’re drifting out. I begin “the fire story.”
“Nam, 1968. I have a rifle platoon in Bravo Company, First Battalion, Third Marines, aka the Home of the Brave. Our company is ordered to take a nondescript hill in Quang Nai Province. The prep begins at 5am: bombs, napalm canisters, and artillery to soften up the enemy and keep their heads down. We approach online and encounter thick jungle. This won’t be a quick sweep to the summit. The undergrowth is a dense tangle of trees, branches, and roots. It is possible that no human has ever come through here. The prep continues as we start cutting our way up. Deadly dangerous if Charlie is waiting. My platoon has only two machetes. Two Marines cut a tunnel until they are exhausted and replaced. The heat is stifling. It must be over 100º F. We are quickly soaked in our own sweat. Two hours into the climb we run out of water. Suddenly, I hear the roar of a jet bomber behind us. A muffled explosion. Napalm! Engulfing smoke. The cackling of burning jungle. Shouts from the rear of the platoon.
“The fire is right behind us!”
“Move it out up there!”
The fire is very close and moving fast. We’re trapped, bunching up between the unyielding jungle and the fire. We won’t be able to move fast enough to outrun it. Fear and panic are rising inside of me. Platoon Sergeant Head says, “What do we do, Lieutenant?”
“Drop our gear and run?” I say.
“Calm down, we can’t leave our gear. We need some help.”
“I don’t even know where the rest of the company is.”
I look around and spot a tall tree. Without explaining, I run over and start climbing. When I get to the top, I spot the rest of our company. They’re in a clearing at two o’clock, about 100m from us. I descend quickly, grab a radio, and call the company commander for help.
“Bravo Six, this is Bravo One … See that napalm fire at 8 o’clock? We are right in front of it and can’t get away. Cut a tunnel towards the fire. Bring as much water as you can carry. Bravo One out.”
We start to hack feverishly toward the rest of the company and the clearing. The heat of the fire has overcome the heat of the jungle. Our tongues swell. The other Marines break through. Their jungled tunnel has met ours. They pass canteens of water to us. My fear and panic start to recede.”
Dave and I paddle back to the outside break. He turns to me and says, “Joe, about a month ago my company responded to a tenement fire. When we arrived, it was fully involved. People still inside. We entered to fight the fire and find the people. I broke into a locked apartment and began searching. I found a young woman in the bathroom, in the tub, overdosed on heroin. I put her on my shoulder and carried her out. When she came to, she couldn’t believe what had happened. She thanks me every time I see her in the neighborhood. You came for me, and I was there for her.”
I pause to absorb what he’s said. Like tumblers falling into place, I feel the connections between our lives. “Dave, my life was saved one day in Nam … ” I stop here. This isn’t the time or place to get into it. “Enough talking, let’s get some waves.”
We paddle back to the takeoff spot, and I surf for another hour.
Back on the beach, I lie in the sun, eyes closed, and return to that day. The Battle of Dai Do, May 3, 1968. Quang Tri Province. Our battalion, the First Battalion, Third Marines, has crossed over to the north side of the Cua Viet River to join the Second Battalion Fourth Marines, aka the Magnificent Bastards.
The Bastards have been in a terrible fight with a large NVA force. We walk through their lines to relieve what is left of them and continue the fight. We have been on the north side three days.
I’m the Executive Officer of Charlie Company. We’ve been held up all morning in a large Buddhist graveyard. Withering fire from a large NVA force to our front stopped us dead. I thank Buddha for this custom of burying the dead in large earth mounds. They provide good cover from enemy fire. But Delta Company, to our right, is pinned down in a large, dry rice paddy. Alpha Company, on Delta’s right, is also under fire and held up in a small village. Bravo Company, already decimated in the first day of fighting, is in reserve. I’m with the command group behind one of the grave mounds. I pull out a small pad and start writing.
“Dad, we have run into a large NVA force. We have been calling in air strikes and artillery all morning, but it hasn’t backed them off. They are hitting us with artillery and trying to shoot down our planes with heavy machine guns. We have called in so much supporting fire that the area to our front is a huge brown cloud. Every time I look around the grave mound I spot dozens of enemy soldiers moving closer to Charlie One, our point platoon. A machine gun just about ripped us new assholes while I was writing that last sentence. They are on our right flank. They are assaulting Delta Company now! I can’t write anymore. Things are getting hectic.”
I hear the Forward Air Controller, circling above the battlefield, say over the battalion radio, “Colonel you must pull back. I’ve never seen anything like this. There’s thousands of them coming right at your positions.”
A few minutes later Captain Dockendorf gets an order from battalion to pull Charlie Company back. He turns to me and says, “Joe, stay behind with the Gunny (the Gunnery Sergeant) and make sure everyone is out of the area.”
The captain then orders, “Pull back”. The company starts to withdraw back through the graveyard. Charlie One, the point platoon led by Lieutenant Rich Higgins, is the last to leave.
Suddenly the Gunny and I are alone. Everyone but us seems to be gone. I look to our front. NVA troopers are entering the graveyard. I yell to the Gunny, “Run, I’ll cover you!” and fire an M16 burst at the advancing NVA. He’s off. I move to the other side of the mound and fire another burst. Then I turn and run.
Gunny has me covered. We leapfrog, running and providing cover fire for each other, toward our new lines about 200m away. It’s a rabbit hunt, and the Gunny and I are the game. Fear and near-panic propel me as I zigzag through the graveyard.
Every time I turn and run, I’m expecting a fatal shot in the back.
Gunny has made it. Only 30m to go. I sprint for the Marines up ahead. Suddenly, I hear two shotgun blasts nearby on my right. I keep moving and make it to the Marine line.
Shaking from fear and exhaustion, I kneel down and face outwards. I hear the distinct popping of an enemy heavy machine gun and see a Marine chopper go down in front of us.
Rich Higgins comes over to me. I look up. “Joe, do you know what just happened?”
“No,” I say.
“I got two of them. They were right behind you … laughing! They never saw me.”
I can’t respond. We’ll have to talk later. Delta is still out there … pinned down and taking heavy casualties.
I don’t know why they didn’t kill me. Maybe they were trying to capture me, or they were stoned. Then again, maybe they just didn’t get a clear shot.
Like I said before, Big Wave Dave doesn’t have a clue. He doesn’t realize that his life was actually saved by Lieutenant Rich Higgins at the battle of Dai Do.
Note: Rich Higgins survived three tours in Vietnam. In 1988, by then a colonel and commanding a UN Force on the Israeli- Lebanon boarder, he was captured unarmed by Hezbollah. Colonel Higgins was never heard from again. He was held in captivity for a year and a half, tortured, and executed. Joseph Giannini joined the US Marine Corps during the Vietnam War and surfed at China Beach. He is now a criminal defense attorney and surfs with his son Vic at Montauk, New York.