By Edward Gregory Jones
When I arrived in Viet Nam I was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 11th Marines, an artillery battalion, as Communications Officer. The S-1 introduced me to the battalion commander Lt Col Hamilton, who welcomed me aboard. He told me that my predecessor had been KIA, but that Gunny Peschek would fill me in. 1/11 was situated on Hill 34, about 30 clicks southwest of Da Nang. This low slung hill, covered in bare red dirt like a week old pimple, was surrounded by fields of shimmering verdant green rice paddies. To the south, the muddy Song Cau Do river. To the west, the foreboding mountains of Laos. And in the distance to the east, the tranquil blue waters of the South China Sea.
I found Gunnery Sergeant Gene Peschek in the hootch that doubled as the comm shack and his quarters. Gunny Peschek was a World War II and Korean War vet who had been around the block more than a few times. I was really happy to have that much experience looking over my shoulder. While we were chatting and getting to know each other, Cpl Sorehan, one of the wiremen, came running in, and, after saluting, said, “Gunny the brig chasers are here. They’ve got Stratton, sir. They’ve brought him back and they need a signature for his release.” Gunny and I went outside. There, in a jeep, were two large Marines and a small, scrawny Marine in handcuffs with his arms dangling between his legs sitting on the back seat. “Take the cuffs off him, he’s not going anyhere,” I said. They did, and I signed the paperwork. They took off, leaving me, Gunny, and Private Lawrence “Lucky” Stratton standing there looking at each other. I noticed that Stratton had a cast on his right arm. I also noticed that he was older, around 30. “Busted down from Sergeant or Staff Sergeant,” I thought. I asked him why he was in CC. “Well Sir”, he said, “I got into a minor altercation with some Air “Farce” types up in Da Nang. I fractured my wrist. Colonel Hamilton, sir, after I got out of sick bay, he busted me and gave me two weeks in CC. I did my time and now I’m back.” CC was short for Correctional Custody, a 2 week incarceration for infractions not worthy of courts martial. This was a lot of information which required fleshing out. “Stratton,” I said, “I’m curious to know what you were doing at the airbase.” “Well sir, I was trying to trade some of my shit to scrounge some plywood and cement so we could fix up the hootches down in the vlle. You know, like, win the hearts and minds. The deal was going OK until those assholes started to get unreasonable. And then they said some uncomplimentary things about the Corps, I felt compelled to defend our honor, sir.” From that brief conversation I discerned that Pvt. Stratton was bright, articulate, decisive, loyal and took the initiative. Right away, I liked him. But, as I came to find out, he walked to the beat of a different drum.
As time went on I learned more about him. I found out that he got the name “Lucky” because, during a Tet rocket attack, the 4 guys in holes next to his were killed. He survived with only a burn to his hand from a piece of hot shrapnel. He became one of the best radio operators in the Fire Direction Center. The FDC bunker was the nerve center of the battalion. We were the only Marine artillery battalion that shot centralized fire direction. All of the battalion’s fire missions came into the FDC where gun data was computed and transmitted to the firing batteries, We shot 2-3,000 rounds a day, augmented by Army guns and naval gunfire. The battleship New Jersey shot for us. On a good day the FDC was frenetic, bordering on pandemonium and controlled chaos. I could put only my best people in there, quick, decisive thinkers who could work under extreme pressure. Lucky Stratton was one of them.
Over time, Lucky’s performance improved. He had not gotten into any more fights, so I promoted him to Private First Class. But I started hearing some scuttlebutt that guys were borrowing money from him. I asked him to tell me what this was all about. He said that while playing poker with some Marines and Vietnamese Rangers he found that they were all playing with different money. There were three currencies in use in Viet Nam at that time, Military Payment Certiccates, Piastres, and Dollars. MPCs were the legal method of payment. The Piastre, the Vietnamese national currency, and the Dollar were forbidden for use by American military personnel. The Dollar was the most valuable, followed by the Piastre and the MPC. Dollars were in demand. Since he had accumulated a stash of these currencies, he started making change and soon became the game’s banker. He kept the conversion rates in his head and took a modest fee for each exchange. Soon his fame and fortune spread beyond the confines of the poker table. Other guys in the the battalion and guys from other units sought him out when they needed cash. He even made modest loans and took collateral. He developed quite a reputation as a poker player, currency dealer and pawn shop. Under normal circumstances I would have busted him and sent him to CC again, but he was my best radio operator, and we were soon about to embark on the largest Marine operation of the war. I couldn’t afford to lose him. And besides war in Viet Nam wasn’t exactly “normal circumstances.”
All Marines who were in-country at least 6 months were eligible for R&R, or Rest and Rehabilitation, at a location of their choice. When Lucky’s R&R came up he announced that he would be going to Okinawa, to visit his Japanese girlfriend. Before he left I asked him to bring me back some Scotch and some cigars. He said he would be glad to do this for me. He returned a week later, but not seeing any Scotch or cigars I asked him if he had forgotten. “Oh no sir, Mr. Jones, I didn’t forget. They’re on a pallet up at Da Nang. I’m trying to get them down here for you.” I had no idea why a bottle of scotch and some cigars would be on a pallet at the Da Nang airbase but I didn’t ask any questions. A couple of days later, sure enough, he showed up in front of my hootch in, of course, an Air Force jeep, with a driver. In the back of the jeep was a case of Johnnie Walker Black Label scotch and a gross of cigar boxes. I was now the owner of 24 bottles of prime scotch and 2,880 Manila Corona cigars. I ended up keeping the scotch and trading most of the cigars. Thanks to Lucky I soon developed my own reputation as a trader.
Lucky went “back to the world” anout 2 months before I did. We didn’t keep in touch. As the years went by I’d often think of him fondly and wonder whatever happened to him. Those frenetic days and sleepless nights in the FDC would have been perfect training for the financial futures pits of the Chicago Board Options Exchange. I often wondered if he was on the other side of any of my trades.