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In late 1967, I was still stationed at Cannon AFB, New Mexico, near Clovis, the “Cattle Capitol of the Southwest.” I was a 1st Lt. and Commander of the Supply Squadron, and I had moved off-base to an apartment in Clovis (where, incidentally, I met my future wife Deanna).

Here are some of my journal entries from those days. In them, you will meet:

Col. Frank Shepard, Base Commander
Col. George Doerr, Deputy Base Commander
Capt. John Thornton, Base Legal Officer and my roommate
Capt. Ted Mayo, Base Legal Officer

———

3 NOV 67

Well, I’m in trouble for sure. This morning, I testified in Airman Key’s administrative discharge hearing. Key is a bad apple, and Col. Shepard (the Rococo Toad) is hell-bent on kicking him out of the service. The pressure from the Toad to get it done has been intense. Ill-advised, if not illegal.

Thornton kept me on the stand for 45 minutes, and I said my piece. In the end, the board voted to retain Key in the Air Force. Shepard will go ballistic when he reads the transcript.

Originally, Mayo was appointed as Key’s counsel, but Key insisted on Thornton. Ted was livid. After the hearing, John being John, he sent a telegram to Ted in Ft. Worth, where he and Judy are attending a country club gala. The telegram read, KEY RETAINED STOP MAY HE COME TO THE BALL STOP

5 NOV 67

A few months ago, the City of Clovis installed a marble tablet of the 10 Commandments on the courthouse lawn. Yes, for real. Thornton and I went down there this afternoon to take photos.

And get this: the Clovis tablet has 11 (eleven!) Commandments. The line about not coveting thy neighbor’s house is presented as Commandment 10, and the rest of the shalt-not-covets are Commandment 11. You can’t make this stuff up.

I’m pretty sure the 10th Commandment is supposed to be something like this: “Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s House, Nor his Wife, Nor His Manservant, Nor His Maidservant, Nor His Ox, Nor his Ass, Nor Any Thing That Is Thy Neighbor’s.”

The Clovis version also skips the “Nor His Ox” part, and “Nor His Ass” was changed to “Nor His Cattle.”

Maybe the cattle part is appropriate. Clovis has stockyards as far as the eye can see and the nose can smell.

10 Cs

6 NOV 67

I got a call this morning from SSgt Hinkle, who came home early from a TDY assignment to find an airman from my squadron living with his wife. Hink wants to confront the airman in my presence. The villainous airman is on leave for a few days, so I have that to look forward to.

Mayo got John’s telegram Friday night in Ft. Worth. It arrived while they were searching for a pearl and diamond bracelet Judy lost. They didn’t find it. Poor Ted.

7 NOV 67

Thornton got permission from 12th AF to release a summarized transcript of Airman Key’s board hearing. Thank God. I was really worried about how Col. Toad would react to my testimony, honest and accurate though it was.

John said he did it to save his own skin, not mine. In his closing argument, he called Shepard two-faced and a dupe. Why, Shep would kick John off the bowling team for that.

8 NOV 67

Hinkle came to my office today and said he changed his mind, he doesn’t want a come-to-Jesus meeting with the cuckolding airman. He just wants the guy transferred as far away from Cannon as possible, ASAP. If not, he will call his congressman and every officer at Cannon from the rank of bird colonel on up.

When I informed Col. Shepard, he summoned me to his office, where he was waiting with Col. Doerr (Commissioner Gordon). Doerr is a decent guy, but nobody considers him a mental giant. He had little to contribute.

Shepard finally decided it would be best to get the offending airman reassigned. He left to go talk to Personnel about it.

9 NOV 67

The Squadron Fire Marshals met today at 1400 hours. I had to meet with Col. Shepard and Hinkle at 1500, so at 1445, I got up and quietly excused myself.

Col. Stitt, always a favorite among the junior officers, said, “Where do you think you’re going?” I explained where. “Sit down, Lieutenant,” he said. Sir yes sir.

The meeting ran until 1530 hours. When I got to the Toad’s office, he chewed me out for being late. I apologized for being such a slug.

Col. Shepard told Sgt. Hinkle that the Casanova airman will get a fast assignment to somewhere else. Personnel is already working on it.

He then gave Hinkle a lecture on how to keep your family together. Ha. Last spring, the Toad’s wife threw him out for two weeks for some mysterious transgression. To our collective chagrin, we never found out what it was.

10 NOV 67

When I got back from lunch, Capt. Bryan from Civil Engineering was waiting in my office. Some major told him that the CE barracks is a disgrace and Bryan’s men are filthy pigs, which is true. The major said Bryan could learn something from Supply Squadron.

That was flattering. I wanted to ask which major it was, but Bryan wasn’t in a happy place, so I refrained.

In spite of being angry and insulted, Bryan was curious. And there he was, asking to see my barracks. I gave him the pass keys and sent him down the hall with a pat on the rump.

13 NOV 67

This morning, MSgt Smith popped in and said he couldn’t find the pass keys. Did I have them? Crap. That moron Bryan didn’t return them.

Smith asked what we should do. I said either pick up the phone and call Bryan or go over to CE and find him, your choice.

I’m amazed that Smith got to be a first sergeant. He always needs help or permission.

I’m beginning to think the Air Force is a haven for incompetents and loafers who can’t make it in the civilian world. Maybe the entire military is that way. I try to maintain my sense of humor about it. You could go mad if you let the daily nonsense and stupidity and petty dramas wear you down.

Now if I can just laugh my way through the next 264 days, I’ll have my DD 214.

DD 214

———

The Rocky Smith of those days honestly believed, I can attest, that the Air Force was a sanctuary for incompetents and loafers incapable of handling civilian life. To him, the evidence was clear.

On the other hand, he was still a young lieutenant, not long out of college, whose work experience was, in fact, limited to the Air Force. Not until he left the military and widened his experience would he learn the truth: all workplaces are the same, whether military, government, academic, privately-held, or whatever.

In reality, the world of Dilbert is the universal norm. Only the people change. And you might as well laugh as cry.

 

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When I got my Bachelor’s degree in 1964, I wanted to follow up with a Master’s in Journalism and Law. But there was a complication. I took ROTC as an undergraduate, and at some point, the Air Force would call me up to serve four years on active duty.

In reality, months could pass, even a year or more, before your orders arrived. Starting grad school in the meantime was not unreasonable.

But it didn’t happen. My orders arrived immediately. I graduated in early June and became 2nd Lt. Smith by the end of July. Indeed, life is like a box of chocolates.

My assignment was to Cannon AFB in eastern New Mexico. I lived in the Bachelor Officers Quarters and worked as an Administrative Officer, a deputy to one of the squadron commanders. Later, when the C.O. went to Vietnam, I moved up to his job.

Being a Journalism major and predisposed to writing, I quickly fell into the habit of keeping a journal about my life at Cannon.

Here are some entries from late 1965. All the names below are real except “Billy Joe Brown.” For him, a pseudonym seemed prudent.

———

3 DEC 65

The legal office called this morning and said to come running. They needed me on standby until we got a verdict in the court-martial of one of my airmen, Billy Joe Brown, alleged bad check artist, deserter, and car thief.

Billy Joe and I played double solitaire for an hour, and then the verdict arrived: a Bad Conduct Discharge, forfeiture of all pay, and six months confinement. I signed Billy Joe over to the APs and headed out to find some lunch.

6 DEC 65

Groan. 1st Lt. Jelley from Operations Support called. He said he had reason to believe that one of my men, A1C Wika, had stolen two parachutes while on the night shift and may have hidden them in his room in the barracks.

“You’re kidding,” I said. Jelley said no, he wasn’t kidding. With a sigh, I went up to Wika’s room and woke him up. I said, “Do you know your rights under Article 31 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice?” Nope.

I couldn’t ask questions until he acknowledged his rights, so I went back down to my office, got a copy of Article 31, and read it to him. He said he understood.

So I said, “Wika, don’t laugh, but did you swipe two parachutes while you were working last night, and if so, are they hidden in this room?” The room is barely large enough for me, Wika, and the bed.

“Yeah, Lieutenant,” he snorted. “I stuffed them in the pillowcase.”

7 DEC 65

I got to my office this morning to find 2nd Lt. Harkrider and MSgt Childress from Base Fuels waiting for me. Harkrider, who looks about 14, is trying to grow a mustache. It’s sort of a wispy blond thing. He said someone stole a parka, and he needed my advice on how to open an investigation.

That’s easy, I said. You don’t open an investigation. You call the Air Police, stand back, and watch them open it. Childress, who is twice as big as Harkrider and twice his age, never spoke.

8 DEC 65

MSgt Stricklan is a crackerjack first sergeant. I’m lucky to have him. Everyone at Cannon respects him, from the top brass to the latrine orderlies.

Strick and I have an unofficial arrangement: I don’t do anything without his tacit approval. That way, the squadron runs smoothly, and I get credit for having the sense to listen to my first sergeant. Mama didn’t raise no fool.

Usually, Strick is stoic and cool-headed, but this week he nearly blew a fuse. It happened during the barracks inspection when he discovered that Airman Lloyd hadn’t changed the sheets on his bed for about a year.

Apparently, Lloyd was out boozing the night before and was still sawing logs when Strick reached his room. Lloyd usually has the bed made and the room ready for inspection, but this time, he was sprawled out on the bed zonked, and the linens were exposed for all to see.

Something about it hit a nerve with Strick. He was appalled. Indignant. He said the sheets were brown, Lieutenant! Literally brown! He reamed Lloyd out and told him to (1) change the bed, (2) prepare for a re-inspection, and then (3) report to my office.

An hour later, a half-hung-over Lloyd knocked on my office door. He admitted he hadn’t changed the sheets since he arrived at Cannon this time last year, but he didn’t see what the big deal was. It was easier just to make the bed and be done with it.

I patiently made a hygiene case. Lloyd wasn’t impressed. No matter, I told him. I suspect you’re about to be put on a laundry schedule that will be personally monitored by the First Sergeant.

10 DEC 65

Maj. Colvard from Operations Support called. He wanted to know if I had reported the theft of the two parachutes to the APs. I said no, they aren’t my parachutes.

Maybe not, he said, but Col. Shepard wants you to handle it. And while you’re at it, report the loss of six aircraft tires. I have the paperwork. Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.

———

In my next post, some journal entries from 1967.

Stricklan & Smith

MSgt Stricklan and 2nd Lt. Smith in the Orderly Room, December 1965. Note the many decorations Lt. Smith had earned at that stage of his military career.

 

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wwjd

dogs-out

caution

purr-more

 

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I was there. I threw some of the snowballs. I know what happened.

Hold that thought for a moment.

As I’ve documented here a few times, I grew up a military brat, the son of an Air Force officer. From birth to college, I was uprooted every couple of years to move somewhere else.

So it was, that, just before I entered 10th grade, Dad was assigned as the Air Force Liaison Officer to 7th Army headquarters, and we moved to Stuttgart, Germany.

It was there, on a wintry Saturday night, that I threw the aforementioned snowballs. Specifically, at a passing car.

Winters at Patch Barracks, the Army post where we lived, were harsh. Lots of snow, lots of plowing, lots of ammunition for snowball fights. It was a common activity among us kids.

Early on, we learned to assess each snowfall by the type of snow it produced. We understood that wet snow is better than dry snow because the snowballs pack more easily and are heavier.

I mention this because, on the Saturday in question, the snow on the ground was a dry snow. The snowballs we made that day were so lightweight and ineffective that your opponents hardly bothered to duck.

Why a friend and I were still outside after dark throwing snowballs at cars, I don’t remember. We had spent most of Saturday at play around the post, and, for whatever reason, the fun continued into the evening.

The two of us crouched behind a row of hedges near the entrance to the family housing for officers. When a car drove by, we let fly with a few snowballs. They would skip off the roof, or plow into a side or rear window, always exploding harmlessly into powder.

I should mention that we never snowballed a car unless it had American license plates. This was the late 1950s, only a decade after the end of World War II. In those days, it would have been imprudent to assail a passing German.

Sometimes, the driver would tap the brakes or the horn, but no one stopped. Clearly, it was just harmless fun by some silly kids.

We, meanwhile, had ducked back behind the hedges to have a good laugh and make more snowballs.

But, eventually, as fate would have it, our luck ran out.

This time, when we pelted the passing sedan with a volley of snowballs, the driver braked suddenly and stopped. The door flew open. A man emerged in a huff.

“Hey, you kids!” he yelled angrily, “You broke my window!”

He stood behind the vehicle, pointing to the rear window. “Look what you did! I heard it crack!”

My friend and I looked at each other. Those snowballs weren’t capable of breaking glass.

Moreover, as the car had passed from left to right, the snowballs struck the side of the car, not the rear. That, I knew with certainty.

This guy was lying. He was trying to dupe a couple of kids into paying for a window that was broken under other circumstances.

And the scheme was working. We were nailed and defenseless, and we knew it.

Meekly, my friend and I came out from behind the hedge. We stood there under the streetlight as the man, a Sergeant First Class of about 40, fumed dramatically about the situation. Then he instructed us to fetch a parent.

I went back to our apartment and found Dad. On the way back to the scene of the alleged crime, I managed to lay out the true facts. Dad told me to keep quiet and let him handle things.

Dad listened in silence to the sergeant’s account of the incident. He didn’t defend us or offer an apology. He presented his contact information and told the man to send him the bill.

On the way back to the apartment, Dad told me he knew the sergeant by reputation. He said the scam the guy pulled was not surprising.

The subject of throwing snowballs at cars did not come up.

Some weeks later, I asked Dad if he had received a repair bill from the sergeant. He had, indeed, and the bill was paid.

“But,” he added with a sly smile, “I got even with him.”

At that, I came out of my chair. This was huge. I was desperate to hear the details.

But, in spite of my best pleading and whining, Dad would not explain.

“Son,” he said, “I’d rather not say. We’ll just let it be my secret.”

Once or twice in later years, I mentioned the incident and tried to get Dad, finally, to come clean.

He never did.

snowball

 

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On a balmy day in June 1964, I was handed two documents: my college diploma and my commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Force, the latter courtesy of ROTC.

Within two weeks, I was ordered to active duty. Before July ended, I was in uniform, serving at a base in New Mexico.

In those days, as you may know, the Vietnam War was at its height. One of the reasons I took ROTC in college was to avoid being drafted, handed a rifle, and sent into the jungles to my doom.

Yes, I dodged being drafted. But to my dismay, the Air Force still had plenty of chances to send me into the war. Fortunately, I was just a non-flight-status lieutenant, first an Administrative Officer and later a PR Officer. They decided they didn’t need me over there.

But plenty of my contemporaries got the call. How it was done was frightfully efficient.

In the Air Force, the usual practice with support personnel was to send you overseas on a TDY (temporary duty) assignment for three months. One day, everything was normal. The next day, you got the TDY orders. A few weeks later, you were in Vietnam.

What you did when you got there depended on your career field. If you were a Supply or Personnel Officer, you worked in Supply or Personnel. Had I gone, I would have remained in admin or PR.

My mentor and boss Major Walker was an experienced pilot. His Vietnam orders assigned him to fly military transports that sprayed the defoliant Agent Orange. Major Walker didn’t come home.

But in most cases, the person returned from TDY safely, greatly relieved to be back, praying that someone else would be sent next time.

However, there were exceptions. There were a few who salivated to get their orders. Who ached to be in the middle of the action.

One of them was my fellow officer Smokey Ellis.

In my experience, the non-flying junior officers were obliged to stick together. Most of us were young and single. We worked, lived, and socialized together because, as a group, we were disdained by everyone else; to the senior officers, the pilots, the NCOs, and the enlisted personnel, junior support officers are useless.

Smokey was an Air Police officer and a decent guy. He was cocky and loud, had a bit too much of a John Wayne swagger, but essentially, he was good-natured and good-hearted.

(Smokey had been his nickname since childhood. He was born Francis Charles Ellis. When he reached adulthood, because he was who he was, he had his name legally changed to Smokey Francis Charles Ellis.)

By the time I knew him, Smokey had a burning desire to get into the war while there still was one. And it wasn’t mere bravado. Like Mr. Roberts two wars earlier, he genuinely longed for his shot at glory.

He submitted Volunteer Statements. He sent letters up the chain of command. Nothing worked. There he sat, languishing in New Mexico.

Finally, he did something about it. He arranged to give up his Air Force commission and enlist in the Army.

Apparently, the Air Force saw no reason to turn him down. Knowing Smokey and his intense passion to be in the fight, I suppose it was the right decision.

Smokey left us rather hurriedly. He consented to a brief going-away party, but you knew his thoughts were elsewhere.

I last saw him in front of the Bachelor Officer Quarters as he walked down the sidewalk toward his car. Two large duffle bags were slung over his shoulder. He turned back toward us once, grinning and waving. You had to be happy for him.

We didn’t hear much from Smokey after that. There was talk that he was accepted for Green Beret training, that he went to Vietnam.

And eventually, the rumor went around that he had been killed in action.

Maybe the scuttlebutt wasn’t true. 56 soldiers named Ellis are listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, and neither Smokey nor Francis is one of them.

Maybe he met his fate in Thailand or Laos in some clandestine operation. Maybe he survived and is now a retired dude enjoying his grandkids.

Your guess is as good as mine.

the-wall

 

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James Henry “Jim” Webb, the former Senator and, until recently, Democratic presidential candidate, always seemed like a tough, honorable, admirable guy. His service to the country, unlike that of so many politicians, appears genuine and selfless.

Webb also is a gifted writer. Most of his work — 10 novels, numerous stories and articles, even a screenplay — has focused on daily life in the wartime infantry, drawn from his experiences as a highly-decorated Marine officer in Vietnam.

And clearly, those experiences made Webb the person he is today: competent and confident, arrogant and stubborn, sometimes volatile and overbearing.

Earlier this year, Webb wrote a short story entitled “To Kill a Man,” a reflection on the Vietnam War experience from today’s vantage point.

For its honesty, clarity, and insights, the story is most remarkable.

—————

To Kill a Man

By Jim Webb
Published in Politico Magazine

“Did you ever kill anybody, Grandpa?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Do you feel bad about it?”

“We can talk about that later.”

His grandson looked skeptically at him as they walked, surprised and unconvinced. He did not usually deal in avoidance, but killing someone was not a subject to be discussed during a short walk in a parking lot as they headed toward the front doors of the Stuart First Baptist Church.

“I guess it must have been a hard thing to do. But I didn’t ask if it was right or wrong.”

“Well, it wasn’t really right or wrong.”

“Do you feel bad? That’s all I asked.”

It was an otherwise glorious morning. The sun hovered above them in a brilliant cloudless sky. They walked together, just the two of them, waving to fellow parishioners dressed in their Sunday best. It was their special weekend, the first Sunday after school closed for the summer, and young Abner always spent it with him. Later, they would go fishing. There was no better place to pass on family traditions than in a jon boat on the quiet of a lake, teaching a boy how to hold a spinning rod, and how to cast along the reed beds, and how to catch a bass. So just before church was an awkward time for his grandson to be asking such a question.

“We’ll talk about it on the lake.” He attempted a joke. “I grew up with Ernest Hemingway. And Hemingway said you aren’t supposed to feel bad about it.”

“Who is Ernest Hemingway?”

“Some writer who never killed anybody. Except himself.”

***

He had killed people, not from the cockpit of an airplane with a bomb dropped by waggling a control stick, or from a shell fired out of an artillery piece behind the barbed wire of a remote combat base, but by pointing a weapon and pulling a trigger. Killing in the infantry was different. It was not always up close and personal, but when it became personal it was also messy.

Which was why he didn’t really think about it that much all these years later. There was no denying that killing people had made him permanently different, not better or worse, just different, from the person he had been before he left and from the people he returned to when he came back home. The reality of it made the breast-beating, theoretical quandaries that dominated classroom discussions back home seem naive and child-like, imbued with the moral certainty that so often attends practical ignorance.

If you take a human life, when you die, will God punish you? Or does He give soldiers a Military Exclusion Clause? Or is there even such a thing as God? And in any event, who are we to ratify such conduct?

His answer had always been simple. Well, you either died or they did.

His postwar life would see its share of accomplishments coupled with all the inevitable frustrations, failures and disappointments of adulthood — but for him, the greatest moral mysteries had been resolved at the age of 23. It was indeed Hemingway who had written that no man truly respected another unless he felt deep inside that if it came to it, the other man would kill him. He knew the answer. He never discussed it with anyone else and he rarely thought much about it. But in knowing the answer, he also knew himself.

So when it came to war, he usually spent his time remembering the more mundane realities. The aches and pains of life in what the Marines called the Bush were with him every day, constant reminders of the war. Those, and lately the ever-too-frequent funerals of good men he had come to know as brothers — the tough, tattooed teeny-boppers who had endured it all only to return to hard lives at home and then aged too quickly and who now were frequently dying before they had a chance to gracefully grow old. Many of them had simply burned out early, their lives sapped up not so much by shrapnel and gunshot wounds, although most of them had been wounded at one point or another, but by the long-term wages of bad water, festering infections, ringworm and hookworm, trench foot and jungle sores, shrimp fever and malaria, the kinds of maladies that were so common you never complained about them to each other and yet so esoteric that they were impossible to describe to anyone who had not been there with you.

And when he thought of the other things, he could never forget those who had died and those who had suffered more than he had. These were the true moral paragons, whether or not they ever considered it or knew it. Some had taken blasts of shrapnel. Some had been ripped by gut shots from enemy rifles and machine guns. Some had lost limbs. Some had returned with minds pushed so far over the edge by it all that they could not fully come back, even when they were home, and never would. All these years later, he still regarded them as his people, his friends, indeed his lifelong comrades, but it had not really started out that way. The bonds that brought them together and kept them close were powerful and permanent and overwhelming, but they were consequential, not intentional.

He and the others had been thrown together by randomness and fate. They had not chosen the war in which they would fight, or the unit in which they would serve, or the loyalties that would impel their conduct for the remaining decades of their lives. It was not as though they were a band of saints motivated for such sacrifice by a higher calling, or evil warmongers who took delight in battle, but rather that they had been forced to undergo a common travail that caused them to be viewed from the outside in a way that few of them had ever dreamed. They had taken risks that others in their age group had only perceived intellectually, and then had been held up before the country as stark evidence that fighting wars brought moral consequences which only they could bear. Those others who had escaped the risks could secretly be grateful that it was he and his friends who had to live in the world that those consequences had brought upon them. The truth was that they had been forced to trust each other with a completeness that, in many cases, grew into a love as close as family. Life after the war did not diminish that trust.

Like everything else, combat had its upsides and downsides. It was just that the downsides were so low that on any day, they could be fatal, while the upsides — knowing one’s self, and an unbreakable camaraderie — were higher and lasted longer. It had taken a while after the war to understand that no one ever really left the Bush, even if they survived it, that neither the terrors nor the intense bonds would ever disappear, and that all of it would always burn inside him as if it were still the first day or the worst day. So there was no logic in trying to forget it or even to block it out. Every single day and sometimes several times a day, he would think of the vastness of the rice paddies and the sharp, jungle-covered ridgelines and the sounds of artillery crunching into the earth and of sudden rifle fire engulfing him like a horrible loud speaker that had short-circuited and gone out of control and of distant helicopter blades beating into the sky, and he would remember what it was like to smell manioc and rotting thatch and bilious waterbull dung in the sultry evening air as his Marines slipped into the fighting holes they had dug at the edge of this latest village and waited to see if the enemy would come.

And every now and then, he even thought about the killing.

***

His regiment had become known for moving at night and attacking enemy positions just before dawn. North Vietnamese Army regulars and Main Force Viet Cong soldiers lived in base camps under the jungle canopy in the nearby mountains, just off the Ho Chi Minh Trail where it left the Laotian border. As dusk fell, they would often send patrols down from the mountains, sometimes to attack but also to harass, ambush and interdict the Marines who controlled the valleys. Just before first light they would leave their night positions and move quickly up the wide, mud-packed Speed Trails that lined the valley floor, back into their base camps.

Like yin and yang, the enemy had built their pattern on the way the Marines camped and patrolled, and over time, the better Marine units built new patterns to match the enemy’s.

Walking under the cover of darkness, the Marines would converge on a village or a key hill or a trail intersection that might hold an enemy position. Nearing it, they would silently split in two. Half of the Marines would form a blocking position in the direction the enemy was most likely to retreat if attacked. The other half would form a wide assault line, and just as the sky began to gray, they would rise from behind the paddy dikes and ditches and assault. Thus trapped, the enemy most often would break contact. Knowing they were at a disadvantage if forced to fight in open terrain during daylight, they would flee toward the mountains, which caused them to run directly into the blocking force. Sometimes the target was empty, and the Marines would simply link up and continue their patrol. Sometimes the enemy was prepared, using well-directed fire and contrived terrain features to channel the Marines into close-in ambushes or cleverly concealed booby traps. And sometimes — the best times — the Marines surprised the enemy, cutting their soldiers down like little metal figures in the shooting booths of a small town’s penny arcade when they tried to retreat.

The commanding generals and colonels called this tactic Sweep and Block. The grunts who did the killing called it Flushing the Rabbits. The sweep and block was the most effective tactical maneuver in the open rice paddies and string-like ridgelines of western Quang Nam Province. A rifle platoon of 40 Marines could pull off a sweep and block. So could a rifle company three times that size, or a battalion of four rifle companies, or in some cases, multiple battalions. During one recent sweep and block, three battalions of Marines had trapped a North Vietnamese Army force several times their size, like the proverbial dog that caught the fire truck. Instead of taking up a morning, the two sides had chased and ambushed each other through the villages and ridges, fighting for eight days.

Now they were on the move again. The moon shone above them in the wide and empty sky, reflecting mirror-like in the rain-drenched paddies. They had broken their perimeter at the edge of a village called Phu Phong (4) in the middle of the night, taking down the tent-like poncho hootches, packing up loose tins of C-ration meals and pulling in the trip flares and claymore mines they had placed in front of their fighting holes, counting the grenades and popups that had lain in the parapets, all of this to make sure nothing was left behind for the enemy. Now, hours later, they glided single-file, Indian style, along a packed, mud-slick paddy dike, 10 meters between each man even in the darkness, the column of a hundred heavily laden Marines stretching back for a mile inside the tree line from whence they had just emerged.

They crossed a wide rice paddy, as empty and silent as the moon itself. If this were a movie, they would have filled the screen with an unspoken majesty, their silhouettes cast against the faintly glowing sky. But on the paddy dike, they struggled and cursed and moaned, anonymous and forgotten, fighting a nervous exhaustion. Close-up they seemed more camel-like than kingly. Each Marine’s frame was shrouded in a 12-pound flak jacket and hump-backed from a much heavier pack. Each head was similarly rounded by a steel helmet. Their boots squished in the mud. Sawgrass scratched their legs. Shoulder-fired rockets,  claymore mines and bandoliers of ammunition clonked against them, matching the loose rhythm of their footsteps. They carried their M-16 rifles with a familiar ease. Their cartridge belts and flak jacket pockets were heavy with canteens of water, pop-up flares and hand grenades.

They were heading east, toward the coming dawn. Soon they would be flushing rabbits from the village of Phu Binh (3).

The rice paddy ended at the outer edge of the village. A raised dirt trail made a perimeter around the hamlet. Just inside the trail, moat-like, was a deep ditch that channeled a murky stream. An old concrete well built by the French many years before marked the intersection with another trail. They turned onto the other trail, crossing a footbridge over the ditch, and then stepped just inside the village.

At the edge of the village the rice fields smelled of ash from a charred streak left by a recent napalm strike. New odors surrounded them as they entered Phu Binh (3). Following the village’s outer rim they were embraced by a fetid musk wafting up from a nearby pond, and then the perfume of a hundred lotus blossoms. The musk and flowers gave way to wet ash from doused cook fires, powdery manioc fields, and the stench of waterbull pens. A rooster crowed. Dogs yapped at them from nearby thatch porches. A waterbull strained against its nose-hooked leash inside its pen, having been trained by the Viet Cong from birth to shriek and stir at the odor of the gun oil used on American rifles.

Leaves hung heavy on the trails, lightly touching their necks and faces. Off to their right the village was pitch-black, its inhabitants huddled inside the earthen family bunkers where they spent each night in order to avoid the war. During daylight patrols frail women who had grown old too early would squat on the mud porches, staring quietly as they passed, their faces frozen and unmoving but their eyes electric, missing nothing. They would roll red crumbles of betel nut inside their mouths like a cow’s cud, squirting the juice in front of them, their teeth permanently stained by it and their minds numbed from it, blocking out the daily crisis of a war that was being fought on top of them. Little kids would hold onto the squatting women’s shoulders and necks as if they were lamp posts, their heads shaved except for small tufts in the very front, many of them naked from the waist down, the Bush equivalent of diaper training. The young men were gone, either dead or hiding or camped with the enemy in the mountains.

And in the darkness there was nothing except the roosters crowing and the dogs yapping and the waterbulls, shrieking and stirring.

It happened quickly. The lead platoon silently broke away from their column and set up behind a rise in the earth on the eastern side of the village. The other two platoons crossed a small stream and moved into place behind a high paddy dike on the village’s western edge. Just before dawn, a firefight erupted a thousand meters to their north. They immediately knew that a sister rifle company had trapped an enemy unit in the hamlet of Phu Binh (1).  Their faces grew taut. They checked and rechecked their weapons. They crouched behind the high paddy dike as the firefight to their north ebbed and flowed. Rifle and machine-gun fire snapped and crackled through the quiet air, red and green tracers careening and intersecting above them in the bluing sky.

Dawn was breaking. Inside Phu Binh (3) more dogs barked and the roosters crowed. The surprised enemy soldiers began to crawl from the bunkers and move toward the speed trails. In moments they poured out of the village in groups of four and five, dozens of them running westward, heading for the mountains but instead moving directly toward the blocking force. On the right flank at the southern edge of the blocking formation, the Marine machine guns opened up, their tracers forming red curtains of steel in front of the fleeing soldiers. The assault force rose from behind the distant knoll, firing their M-16 rifles from the hip and steadily moving toward them.

The fleeing enemy soldiers were trapped. Some took cover in the mud behind low paddy dikes, setting up a base of fire to protect their comrades. Small groups were shifting directions, probing the blocking position, trying to find an escape route as the gunfire from the Marines grew more intense and ever closer.

The Marines in the blocking positions knelt behind the high paddy dike, looking for shadowed targets in the pre-dawn air. To their north, the battle at Phu Binh (1) became more intense, a spillover of heavy rifle and machine gun fire sweeping their left flank. To the east, their front, the firing from the assault force grew heavier, many of the rounds impacting near the blocking force. Theirs had become an instant world of heavy rifle and machine gun fire now coming in from three different sides, mixed with the random impact of rocket-propelled grenades.

They crouched behind the paddy dike to avoid a swelling, heavy burst of fire. Kneeling again and looking over the top of the dike, he caught a dark swirl of motion off to his left, away from the center of the firefight. Three enemy soldiers were jogging just in front of the blocking force, heading south, having escaped the killing zone of the battle at Phu Binh (1). Bent over as they ran, holding their AK-47 rifles low to the ground, they were running perhaps 50 meters in front of the blocking position, well away from the center of the firefight.

The three enemy soldiers did not see the Marines in the blocking force, most of whom were still huddled behind the high dike to avoid the assault force’s gunfire. They began running right toward him, thinking to disappear behind the high paddy dike and reach the speed trail that would take them to the mountains. They would be on top of him within seconds. He had to move quickly, and he knew that this would have to be a careful shot so that he would not hit any of the assaulting Marines on the other side. He grabbed an M-79 grenade launcher from another Marine and stood, exposed to the gunfire of the assault force and also to the advancing enemy soldiers.

The soldier in the middle saw him. They were 30 meters apart, the distance from home plate to first base in a baseball game. The soldier slowed his jog, raising an AK-47 rifle and pointing it at him. But he had already aimed his M-79. He plunked out the 40 millimeter round. The small grenade exploded in the soldier’s chest. The soldier staggered backward and sideways in a quick death dance, like a chicken whose neck had just been wrung and whose head had popped off, but whose muscular system had not yet picked up the brain’s signal that it was dead. The soldier finally fell, face down into the rice. In the darkness and the confusion, the other two enemy soldiers raced along the edge of the paddy dike, almost near enough for the Marines to reach out and touch them. In the chaos, they disappeared.

Somewhere across the vast Pacific, back in what they all liked to call The World, people his age were protesting the war in which he had been sent to fight. Some of them were conjuring up complicated moral visions of what he and the others were doing or maybe should have done instead of fighting. Some hated him, simply for having done it. Some were empathizing, with pity but rarely with respect. Whatever they felt, precious few were capable of understanding what it meant or what it took to have to pull the trigger, of how empty of intellectual thought that moment could be, and how devoid of larger meaning it actually was. Deep inside, he knew that almost every person who was making these larger judgments would have done the same thing, or at least tried to, and if they had not been capable of doing the same thing, or if their moral compulsions were so strong that they could not bring themselves to do it, then they would have lost. And despite all their high-blown moral pronouncements, they would be dead.

The firefight dwindled and then ended. The assault force met the blocking force. The morning sun cooked up the water from the paddies and the ponds. The roosters crowed and the small dogs yapped. The villagers crawled out of their family bunkers. Odors from the cook fires of the villages wafted over them. Despite the vicious killing, all was oddly calm and even normal in this next new day. They checked dead bodies, collected enemy weapons, and called in the medevac helicopters for a handful of Marines who had been wounded. In the odd and haunting normalcy of killing mixed in with the numbing routine of survival, they ate a quick C-ration breakfast. Then laden with gear, underneath a baking sun, they decamped and moved on to the next stop on their patrol route and to the next village or ridgeline where they would set up a new evening perimeter.

He had searched the body of the man he killed. The dead soldier was carrying a tubular cloth strapped diagonally across his chest, like an old Civil War bedroll. The cloth cylinder was filled with dry rice and cracked corn. Inside the soldier’s pack was a red tin of sardines and a mess kit loaded up with cooked rice. NVA packs were prized among Bush Marines for their lightness and for the simplicity of their tie-down pockets. One of his Marines had quickly claimed the soldier’s pack, tossing his own in with the enemy weapons and gear that would be loaded onto the medevac helicopter.

He had eaten the dead soldier’s ration of rice and cracked corn for several days, boiling portions in his canteen cup, mixing in jalapeño peppers and odd spices they would find as they patrolled through the villes, pouring C-ration tins of spiced beef or boned chicken into the canteen cup to make a special feast. There were only 12 meal options in a case of C-rations. From the beginning, several of the meals were unpalatable. Boredom and repetition quickly made about half of them inedible. When it was 95 degrees and one could not escape the boiling sun, there was little appetite for a tin of greasy spaghetti and meatballs or a heavy combination of beef and potatoes. In his first three months in the Bush, he had lost 20 pounds. Now, after seven months he had become sunbaked and spindly, and when he ate, it came down to spiced beef, Spam-like slices of processed ham, or boned chicken.

The dead soldier’s rice was, if not a blessing, certainly an epicurean diversion. And there was more to it. Killing the soldier had been personal. Eating his food became a form of Communion.

Take. Eat. This would have entered my body…

He had also stripped out the dead soldier’s wallet. There were some pictures, including a family photo taken underneath a tall palm tree, everyone smiling and dressed in their best clothes, and a wad of North Vietnamese money, which was useless and whose value he did not understand. In the randomness of combat and the unpredictability of his own survival, he thought that someday he might find the dead NVA soldier’s family. This was not an obsession or even a clear intention. More than anything, it was part of a superstition, a reluctance to destroy the photos and the wallet that had been in the soldier’s pack when he had killed him. So he carried the dead soldier’s wallet and pictures and money in his own pack until he himself was wounded. Then in the confusion of his medevac and the transfer of his gear out of the Bush, everything inside his pack was either lost or stolen. The tangible remains were lost, just as certainly as the soldier’s life itself.

But he was not lying to his grandson, or attempting to soften the young boy’s perceptions, or trying to protect him from some brutal reality that, in their family’s long military tradition, he knew his grandson himself might someday live. The truth was, he rarely did think about killing, at least in a way that haunted his moral underpinnings. Fair was fair. Or, depending on how things went, maybe unfair was unfair. One of them had to lose and one of them had to win, and it had nothing to do with God or law.

There were other times when he had come face to face with this reality, including a final moment when the odds had turned against him and it had all caught up with him, as he had always secretly known it would. In a heavy bamboo thicket at the edge of a musky finger of water he had pointed a pistol into the face of an enemy soldier who had just thrown a grenade at him from a hidden door on top of a concealed, reinforced bunker. He had killed the man, just as he had killed another soldier in a bunker before this one and then another soldier standing in the bunker behind the man he had just shot. Two seconds later, the grenade erupted and blew him off the side of a hill and into the sewer-like, murky stream.

Fair was fair.

The enemy soldier had been smiling. He did not know why. He was not happy about shooting the man but never in all his later years could he conjure up an apology or a regret, other than for the fact that they both had been forced into a violent, inescapable standoff. Of all the long combat he had faced, he remembered this man more than any other, because every morning for the rest of his life as he climbed out of bed he could feel the leavings of that grenade’s explosion and remember the hospitalizations and the surgeries that continued off and on throughout the decades. As those days slipped past him toward the long night that he knew awaited him, he also remembered the things that the explosion had taken away from him, despite his relief over the things that it had not disturbed and the sometimes funny, sometimes irritating things it left behind, like the ringing of the metal detectors when he went through airport security because there was still shrapnel in his body.

And every time he did stop to think about those few seconds that had forever changed his life, he could still see the soldier smiling from inside the trap door of the bunker as the soldier threw the grenade and he shot him in the face. And he wondered why the soldier had seemed to be so happy.

Jim Webb

1st Lt. Jim Webb in Vietnam.

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Sometimes, a person needs to vent. And when you have a blog, you might as well use it.

It’s been nearly 50 years, and this one still sticks in my craw…

When I was in college in the 1960s, I was enrolled in the ROTC program, which was, and probably still is, the least painful way to become a military officer.

Back then, as you may know, guys my age were being handed a rifle and sent to get killed in Vietnam. I wanted no part of that, so I opted for Air Force officer training. Not the Army, and not the Marines, thank you very much.

I took a series of Air Science classes during college (in addition to the regular curriculum), and in a ceremony the morning of graduation, I was sworn into the Air Force as a second lieutenant.

Two months later, I was called up to active duty. I served from 1964 until 1968 and was, in succession, a deputy squadron commander, a full-blown squadron commander, a P.R. officer, and a squadron commander again.

I did a damn good job. As a young and unlikely boss, I tried to be as fair, impartial, and  non-dictatorial as possible. In general, the men seemed to like me, even respect me. Especially compared to other COs on the base, some of whom let power go to their heads.

Just so you’ll know, I was, at age 21, the youngest unit commander in the whole blooming Air Force, with 500 men reporting to me.

Although I knew right away that soldiering wasn’t for me, and one four-year term would be enough, I enjoyed the experience and was proud of my service.

However, in 1968, when I left the Air Force and returned to Atlanta and civilian life, armed with what any rational person ought to consider valuable experience in managing people and organizations…

… nobody cared.

Nobody.

To my dismay, the companies where I had job interviews considered my military service to be not just meaningless, but an actual detriment; to them, I was a college graduate with zero experience, AND I was four years older than the other greenhorns.

Had I served as a fighter pilot, or a tank commander, or a Green Beret — had I come home highly decorated or wounded or both — maybe my service would have meant something to them. Maybe.

The Air Force, however, had made me a desk jockey and assigned me to a training base in New Mexico. No medals or glory for me.

But the Air Force, God bless it, gave me enough responsibility to last a lifetime.

My job as a unit commander was to ride herd on the hundreds of airmen and non-coms in my charge; to see that they were housed and fed and trained; to praise, reward, and promote them when they earned it; and to mete out the appropriate discipline when they got into bar fights, ran up too many debts, went AWOL, or got drunk and decked their wives at the NCO Club on a Saturday night.

My First Sergeant and I, sometimes together and sometimes singly, stayed busy tending to an eclectic and unpredictable bunch of boys and men.

We pinned on their new stripes, got them out of jail, bragged on their babies, intervened with their creditors, met their wives and girlfriends, and went to their homes to try to patch things up after a spat.

When most of them were called on the carpet, the seriousness of the situation got their attention. They responded to straight talk and reasoning and thereafter stayed out of trouble.

With others, it took cajoling and more stern measures. Maybe placing a Letter of Reprimand in their files. Maybe with the understanding that if they behaved, the letter would get tossed.

More often than not, the infractions were minor, and things worked out. But not always. Some matters were either unsolvable or just too serious, and they had to be referred to the Base Legal Office.

Nobody wanted that to happen — to see a man going on trial, possibly demoted, discharged from the military, or locked up. During that four years, I was involved in 50 or more courts-martial and Article 15 (non-judicial punishment) procedures.

But when I became a civilian again, no, I couldn’t handle the entry-level copywriter spots at the ad agencies.

I wasn’t right for those marketing trainee jobs with Delta and Coca-Cola and Lockheed.

I was a bad fit for the beginner jobs with state government, the newspapers, the Chamber of Commerce, and all the rest.

At the time, I was married with a kid, and I had to find gainful employment. Finally, I took a job as a collection agent for an Atlanta insurance company.

Every day, I sat at my desk and, speaking into a Dictaphone, composed letters to poor saps who didn’t have the money to pay their policy premiums. They were in arrears and thus were in the company crosshairs for cancellation.

In the letters, I informed them that if this office did not receive the past due amount of (insert amount here) no later than (insert date here), we would have no choice but to (insert drastic action here).

Every afternoon, someone from the typing pool picked up my magnetic tape containing the day’s dictation. The next morning, a pile of typed letters appeared in my inbox. I signed them, placed them in the outbox, and commenced another round of dictation.

After a few months with the insurance company, I stumbled onto a curious classified ad in the newspaper seeking a “wordsmith” for an unspecified position in state government.

I applied, and it turned out to be the Governor’s Office, looking for a speechwriter. I got the job. I’ve been in the writing business ever since.

Nothing says life has to be fair. But after all this time, I still deeply resent having my Air Force experience dismissed and disrespected. The succession of people who turned me away back then — they blew it.

I wish I could magically sit them down, one by one, grab them by the lapels, and make them understand what clueless idiots they were.

But I guess I’ll have to settle for airing it out in a blog post.

That's me in 1966 -- 1st Lt. W. A. Smith, Commander, Headquarters Squadron, 832nd Combat Support Group, Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico.

That’s me in 1966 — 1st Lt. W. A. Smith, Commander, Headquarters Squadron, 832nd Combat Support Group, Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico.

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