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Ah, 'Blue' . . . . . . Watch Your Front

July 05, 1987|JAY SHARBUTT | Jay Sharbutt is a Times staff writer

GREAT FALLS, Va. — The view from the road is of a two-story house, a cluster of cars owned by family members, a weary white mailbox by the fence and a knee-level TV camera strapped with gray ducting tape to the mailbox post.

A polite, soft-spoken government security man meets the visitor at the fence gate. He says that the owner of the house is not in. There has been testimony that day, at the Iran- contra congressional hearings, about a $13,900 security system for this particular home.

"All the TV crews came out here this morning to take pictures," the security man says, nodding toward the video sentry.

Ah, Blue, the visitor thinks, be advised, you still got movement to your front.

The visitor walks away, into a memory of June, 1969. He is at a base called Dong Ha, for a story about the first withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. Two scruffy Marine grunts, just in from the bush, urge him to interview their platoon leader.

" 'Blue,' that's his call sign," one kid says. "You really should do a story on him. Man definitely has his Sierra together."

High praise, from a grunt. But it turns out that Blue, still recovering from shrapnel wounds in the legs, has gone on R & R.

Well, that is that, the reporter thinks. In August, 1970, though, at 1st Marine Division headquarters at Da Nang, he runs into Blue at the court martial of Cpl. Randall D. Herrod.

Herrod is charged with murdering 16 women and children in a hamlet south of Da Nang while leading a five-member roving night-ambush patrol. Two in the patrol were convicted of various charges, the third was acquitted, and the fourth was granted immunity for his prosecution testimony.

A young, ramrod-straight Marine lieutenant with a noticeable limp is waiting to testify as a character witness for Herrod. The reporter takes down his name. He gets the impression that the officer is a tad up-tight, perhaps the sort who regards the media as Distort City at best, or commie pinko geeks.

They get to talking, though. The reporter learns that the lieutenant, on his own time, and hitching flights where he could, came back from the States to testify for Herrod. The corporal once served under him in a different division, a different rifle platoon up north near the DMZ.

This reminds the reporter of the two grunts at Dong Ha. "Any chance you had the call sign 'Blue?' " the reporter asks.

The lieutenant grins. Yes, indeed, he says. The reporter explains what prompted the question. They talk more, the El-Tee loosens up. When asked if he's read "Catch-22," he even laughs. "It's one of my favorite books," he says.

When he testifies, he praises Herrod to the skies. Says that the kid, while serving in his platoon, was an outstanding Marine.

Word was that the Marine brass was not pleased with the lieutenant's testimony, that they wanted Herrod nailed clean and hard, as proof positive that the Marines would never condone anything like My Lai.

The lieutenant's court appearance isn't long. Good luck, the reporter tells him as he leaves. They shake hands. The lieutenant says that he's headed home, to his pregnant wife back in Virginia.

The trial proceeds. Finally, a verdict, a surprising one: Herrod is acquitted.

Two nights later, at the Marine-run Da Nang press center, the reporter gets a phone call. It's the lieutenant. He's still in Vietnam, still at the FirstMarDiv transient officers' barracks, still awaiting a flight out of Vietnam.

"I don't think I'm high on the priority list," he says, sort of laughing.

The reporter mentions this the next day to a friend, a young Marine sergeant, an ex-grunt assigned to the press center. "They're messing with him," the sergeant says angrily. "That's wrong, dead wrong."

He assigns the reporter to souvenir him a bottle of fine wine. Then, wine procured, the sergeant adjourns to consult a friend, an Air Force dispatcher at the Da Nang air base.

Late that night, the sergeant wakes up the reporter. "Get your jeep, we only got an hour!"

Much bustle, much confusion ensue. But with only about 10 minutes to spare, the lieutenant, still wearing his camouflage fatigues, is signed in for a flight headed to Okinawa. He'll have no real transport problems once there. He shoulders his seabag and starts limping toward the waiting C-130.

"Sir!" shouts the sergeant who wangled him the flight. The lieutenant turns around. The sergeant whips him a picture-perfect salute. He gets one in return.

The reporter starts thinking, this is not a good ending, it's too Hollywood. He calls to the lieutenant, "Wait, do you need any after-crash mints?" The lieutenant laughs. "You guys are nuts." And he goes home.

The sergeant later became a captain. He now works in the movies. His name is Dale Dye. He was the tech adviser on "Platoon" and also played an Army company commander in it. He's doing fine.

The lieutenant, the one who testified for Cpl. Herrod and whose call sign was Blue, did fairly well for a while. He made it to lieutenant colonel. But matters concerning Iran, contras and such have caused him no end of trouble, and there appears no prospect for relief.

He and his family live in that two-story house here, the one where government security mans the gate, screening visitors for Oliver L. North.

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