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
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.