Sunday, November 11, 2007

Just Another War Story

(Reader's advisory: this is a soldier's tale, and contains soldier's language. Caution: the following blog post contains adult language and graphic descriptions of real-life violence. It is a veteran's description of what happened at a specific point in time. Kindly take it it under consideration, bad language and all. The language and behaviorable descrptions are not suitable for children. You have adult content dead ahead.)

Okay, so it was my fault. I should have let that gook stick his knife in me instead of firing the shot that started it all. At least that’s what I told myself for thirty years, twenty of which I spent floating inside a liquor bottle.

Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself. People say I’m quite the raconteur when it comes to war stories, just because I’m willing to talk about things that most guys won’t. I understand why they keep their silence; a lot of what happens in combat defies description, and the things you can talk about are usually too personal for other people to understand unless they’ve been there. My cousin Weyman was a Green Beanie major who served four tours in Nam to my two. At the end of that fourth tour, he resigned his commission, ditched the career the military was grooming him for, and went home to South Carolina to run his daddy’s feed store. We see each other every year at the family reunion, but even knowing each other’s histories with the war, we still don’t speak of these things.

When they gave me my medal, there were official versions of what happened, of course. The citations have to be witnessed by those who were there, and validated like parking tickets up through the chain of command. The day I started a firefight that almost destroyed an entire infantry company, and Rosie had to save my dumb young ass in the process, there was only one hero, and he didn’t receive any recognition. As we said a lot back then, there it is. There’s an official version of what happened that day, and there’s reality. This is what really happened:

We raided into the NVA base camp just after dawn. These guys were regulars, with training, discipline, and good equipment. They also weren’t there at the time. Five of us against four hundred of them only works in Hollywood. This was a routine prowl ‘n growl for our squad; we located and marked logistical targets in the Parrot’s Beak for destruction by air or artillery strikes. The legality of taking the war to the enemy in a supposedly neutral third country didn’t bother us. That was a question for Nixon and Kissinger to wrestle with. After years of blindly bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail with little effect on the flow of men and materiel, someone, somewhere finally had the brilliant idea to send SpecOps to find some useful stuff to destroy. SOG was the in-country franchise of the CIA, and my unit, the 173rd Airborne, had been in Vietnam since the war began to heat up in the Sixties. We were deemed the best men for the job, even though most of us weren’t old enough to vote or order a beer back home.

There were five of us: Randy White, a burly guy from the steel-town redneck culture of Birmingham, Alabama. David Gibson, a dark-eyed Jewish poet/philosopher from northern California. Bob Giannoni, a hyperactive Sicilian redhead from Indian River, Michigan. Gary Cole, a large black man from Columbus, Ohio. We called Gary “Rosie,” a nickname that had stuck when, in Ranger school, I remarked on his resemblance to the football player Roosevelt Greer. And there was me; a lanky high school dropout from Georgia, nicknamed “Bumstead.” That unfortunate nickname had attached to me in the moment after I said Gary looked like Rosie Greer. He laughed, spat, and said, “At least I ain’t no Dagwood Bumstead-lookin’ motherfucker like you!”

We worked well as a team. We were able to read each other’s minds and intuit each other’s intentions in the field with a minimum of hand signals and less conversation. This was a valuable asset in an environment where you ate the enemy’s diet of fish and rice for 72 hours before going on a mission, as he could literally smell you. The American diet of red meat and sugar gave our perspiration a distinctively alien tang, and the typical heat of Vietnam ensured there was plenty of sweat to be smelled. We could move swiftly and silently when necessary, fade into invisibility when called for, and whatever early qualms we’d had about the ability to take a human life had vanished in the chaos of our first firefight. In short, we were veteran jungle fighters: competent, motivated, and old beyond our years. From BDAs in the moonscapes created by Agent Orange and Arclight’s carpet bombing, to snatching enemy prisoners in the middle of the night, we’d done it all. Our Vietnamese enemies called us the “Green Faced Devils,” and offered a bounty of 50,000 piasters to anyone who brought one of our heads to them. None of our expertise and experience prepared us for what happened this fucked-up day, though.

We had been stalking the NVA regiment for two days, trying to locate their base camp. They, in turn, were across the border in Vietnam, stalking our backup, a company from the 9th Infantry. The guys from the 9th were mostly draftees, unhappy about being here at this late stage of the war, and probably clueless as to why they were slogging about in the woods. Only the Delta company commander, a captain, and the lieutenants leading his operating platoons would know they were being dangled as bait less than two miles from the Cambodian border. They were truly the unwilling, led by the unfit, and commanded by the uncaring.

Two platoons of Delta Company were holding a landing zone two kilometers on the Nam side of the border. The plan, such as it was, called for the NVA troops we were shadowing to pull a hit-and-run on the LZ garrison. With any luck, air and arty would then catch Charlie out in the open as they beat feet for Cambodia. Our assignment was to locate their base camp, so if they broke contact with Delta Company, we would wait for them to return to their hidey-hole, and then call a fire mission on it. Simplicity itself, and a lot less dangerous than it sounded, as our squad was not supposed to make anything but visual contact with Charlie.

I had dropped out of high school to enlist in the Army and see the war I’d protested against. In basic training, my drill sergeant—a Ranger—noted that I wasn’t a draftee, and questioned me about my motive for joining at a time when military service was anathema to most people my age. I explained that my family had always served, from the American Revolution through the Civil War, two world wars and Korea, and my cousin was a Special Forces officer.

“It’s like you said, sergeant. You don’t have to like it, you just have to show up.”
The next day, the sergeant took me aside after the morning run.
“I see you dropped out of high school to join my army, Webb. Before that you attended Georgia Military Academy.”
“Yes, sergeant.”
“That shows a high degree of motivation.”
“If you say so, sergeant.”
“We need motivated people, Webb. I’ve got a proposition for you.”
“Yes, sergeant?”
“You take some evening classes, get your GED, keep up the effort you’re showing here, and I’ll recommend you for Ranger school.”
I gave him a quizzical look.
“Don’t you want to be the best of the best?”
Yes, sir . . . ah, sergeant.” (One does not call a non-commissioned officer “sir,” but it’s easy to forget during moments like this.)

“Only one out of ten that’s recommended gets in, and only one out of ten of those that gets in make it through, so there’s no guarantee. But if you go get that GED, I’ll put you in for it.”

The deal was made, and the deal was done. I raced through the remainder of my high school senior-year studies in three weeks, thought I’d die during the six weeks of Ranger school that followed, but to my considerable surprise and the cautious pride of my father—a Silver Star winner in World War II—I found myself in the unenviable position of squad leader in a war zone at the ripe old age of twenty.

The sun had been up for about an hour when voices reached us as we moved through the sun-dappled forest. Much of the landscape of Vietnam’s highlands resembles the woods of north Georgia, except for variances of flora and fauna. We glided through the deep shadows, pausing occasionally to look back and keep our bearings in case we had to move fast getting out. When I was a kid learning to hunt deer, I’d been taught that most people get lost in the woods because they never look over their shoulders, so when they try to go back the way they came, the landscape is totally unfamiliar. We knew better. If things got hot for us, we were on our own. There would be no air extraction on this side of the border. The Paris peace talks were at a delicate stage, and the risk of losing a helicopter on a mission inside a neutral country was too great. If we had to unass the area, it would be all the way back to Delta’s LZ.

Now the smell of a cooking fire joined the faint babble of voices. Gibson, on the point, halted and dropped onto his belly. The rest of us took a knee behind him. He peeked around a tree, craned his neck slightly, and then held up four fingers. I eased my shotgun and pack to the ground and crawled forward to lie beside him. Just in front of us was an open embankment leading down to a small creek. On the other side was a large, flat area, sheltered from the sky by the thick canopy of old-growth trees. Near the creek side, about twenty meters from us, were four NVA regulars. Their khaki shirts were off, and they were chattering away in their peculiar sing-song language as one of them stirred a small pot over an open fire. They were guards, probably ill or injured, left behind to provide security for the camp. Their behavior indicated they were heedless of danger. They doubtless felt secure in the bosom of Cambodia, where the imperialist Yankee running dogs were afraid to venture. One of them appeared to be telling a dirty joke, and the others laughed raucously at his monologue and hand gestures.

I rolled softly onto my back and unholstered my Colt Woodsman. David glanced at me and nodded. He drew his own pistol, and we attached the suppressors we carried. The Woodsman sporting pistol fires a .22 long rifle varmint round. We pre-loaded our hollow-points with liquid mercury, which gave them an explosive effect on impact, greatly enhancing their lethality. When fired through suppressors—“silencers” in Hollywood parlance—they effected quiet kills with little muss or fuss. It was a risk to take these guys down, but we wanted a closer look at the camp, especially the camouflaged lean-to that was obviously the officer’s crib. There was a makeshift table in the hooch, with a radio and some paperwork visible. Stuff like that was a gold mine for the intelligence weenies in Saigon, and justified the chance we were taking.

I gestured for Gibson to take the two on the right. We peered around either side of the tree trunk. Just then, one of the guards said something, turned, and began to wade across the creek in our direction. As he reached our side, he fumbled with his zipper, obviously intending to urinate. He continued up the shallow embankment, looking down at the ground. I tensed. He stepped up to the tree where we were lying, and looked up slightly, right into my eyes.

His mouth dropped open. Before he could cry out, I shot him twice in the torso without aiming. As he tumbled backward into the creek, Gibson and I leaped to our feet and fired a volley of double taps into his three companions. The range was close enough, and all three dropped. I motioned for my people to come up, and stepped cautiously down to the water’s edge. The entire incident had taken maybe ten seconds.

For a big man, Rosie moved gracefully. I started as he stepped up and handed my pack and shotgun to me. “Shit, man,” he muttered. “They gonna be pissed when they come back and find this.”

“I hope we’ll be long gone by then. Give me the radio.” He handed me the telephone-like handset of the PRC-24 transceiver he carried on his back. I raised a relay station on the divisional radio net, and gave them the six-digit map coordinates of the camp. Artillery and air strikes could now level the place on command. Randy, David and Bob were already checking the bodies for signs of life, kicking their hands into the open and prodding each corpse’s eyelid with the barrels of their weapons. A fallen soldier may be faking death, but only a dead man won’t flinch if you poke him in the eye. I glanced at the first NVA, who lay face down in the shallow water of the creek. He looked dead to me, and I wanted to see what was lying around in the officer’s hut. Ignoring my security training about checking bodies, I stepped over to the lean-to.

Maps, radio codes and call signs; it was everything I could hope for. I picked up the papers and leafed through them. The words were incomprehensible, but their significance was clear. This was a good “take,” and warranted immediate extraction to get this stuff into the hands of the intelligence wizards. A quick stroll back to the Delta LZ, and. . .

My mind filled with images of a hot tub, two mamasans to scrub my back, a bottle of cognac, and a cigar of Cambodian Red. I was so lost in the fantasy of the mission being over that what happened next caught me completely off guard.

“Kill him! Kill him!” It was Randy White, bellowing at the top of his lungs. The words were shocking in the stillness of the campsite. I looked up. Randy was pointing his machine gun directly at me, still screaming “Kill him!”

For an instant I thought he’d flipped out and was going to shoot me. Then I heard a splashing sound, and turned. The first soldier I’d shot had gotten up, and was coming out of the creek with a K-bar in his hand. The angle between Randy and him was such that White didn’t have a clear shot, so he was sounding off.

I carried a .12 gauge pump shotgun in the field, as an adjunct to the Remington .308 sniper’s rifle packed lovingly into a nylon carry case lashed to my backpack. The Winchester was dangling in my right hand, cocked and locked, as I stood transfixed by the wounded man’s approach. The papers in my left hand fluttered slowly to the ground as I brought the shotgun up and fired from the hip. The .00 buckshot took the Vietnamese full in the chest. The impact knocked him backwards. The noise was horrendous. The blast set his shirt on fire. I hope I will never live another such day in this lifetime.

I had another round chambered before the man’s body splashed into the water. The time compression of extreme duress had kicked in, and it all appeared to be happening in slow motion. Like thunder, the boom of the single gunshot seemed to roll on and on.

“Fuck me!” Giannoni lamented. “We’re screwed now!” He was hopping from one foot to the other, trying to scan 360 degrees for anyone responding to the sound of the shot. Although as brave as anyone I know, Bob would make coffee nervous.

“We might want to think about leaving,” Dave Gibson suggested. He was externally still, but his eyes were roving in all directions. As though underscoring Gibson’s words, White racked the bolt of his M-60 machine gun noisily. The time for silence was past; anyone within a kilometer would have heard the shot, and would be on the way to investigate.

I grabbed the papers I’d dropped and stuffed them into the cargo pocket of my pants. The smell of cordite was strong in the still air. My ears rang. We’d instinctively formed a protective perimeter, our backs to each other as we faced outward. With a short whistle and a hand gesture for the others to follow, I headed out.

According to the map, the camp was about two klicks—kilometers—inside Cambodia. LZ Delta was two klicks further on from that. A kilometer is roughly six tenths of a mile. There’s a conversion formula that involves multiplying by eight, then dividing by five, or vice versa, but this was not the time for practicing my piss-poor mathematics skills. Four klicks was approximately 2.4 miles, and that’s a long way to run in hundred-degree heat with sixty pounds of gear encumbering you.

We’d covered over half the distance to the border when we met the NVA coming the other way. It was a worst-case scenario; they were fully alert, walking rapidly in single file, rifles at port arms, along a well-worn high-speed trail. We burst out of the trees a hundred meters in front of them. Everyone froze for a second.

Gunfights are strange. You swear afterwards that the other guy was dead in your sights, and you can’t understand why he didn’t drop when you fired. The fact is, you yank the trigger in semiautomatic mode, or spray-and-pray on rock ‘n roll. Aimed shots are the exception, not the rule. It takes a cool head to override the body’s survival instincts when the target is shooting back at you.

One second we were all staring in disbelief at each other; the next moment the woods erupted in gunfire. As a single body, we turned right and ran like hell after the initial fusillade. The waspish drone of AK-47 rounds chased us through the trees.

If we’d been moving fast before, we were flying now. To this day, I can’t listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle" without nightmares.

I passed Randy White, who turned to fire several bursts from his heavy hog at our pursuers. Then he pulled abreast of me, his stumpy legs pumping furiously. He was gasping with effort, and muttered “Shit!” with every breath. We broke out of the trees into a small clearing. I could feel my back tingling with anticipation of a bullet as I raced across the thirty meters of open ground. In my mind’s eye, I saw an NVA soldier reaching the edge of the clearing, stopping, raising his rifle to aim, and. . . .

I turned to look back and see if the nightmare had become reality. No one was there yet. Just as the thought registered, I ran into a tree like Wile E. Coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon. It broke my left cheekbone and gave me a severe concussion, but I wouldn’t know that until later. All I knew was one moment I was running full-tilt for safety, and the next I was lying on my back staring at the partly cloudy sky.
Then Rosie was there, kneeling beside me. He was holding his M-16 with one hand as he jerked me upright with the other. “You okay, Bumstead? You hit?”

“I’m okay,” I replied. My face was numb, but I wasn’t bleeding anywhere. I struggled to get to my feet, but my legs wouldn’t cooperate. I shook my head, trying to clear it.

“Motherfucker!” I could hear Rosie yelling, but was confused why he was cussing at me. In fact, he was yelling at the NVA, who had arrived at the far side of the clearing and were beginning to take potshots at us. His M-16 was on rock ‘n roll now and he was firing it with one hand as he picked me up by my belt like a suitcase and started to run. As my head banged along the ground in the awkward position, I could hear Randy’s M-60 barking in long bursts, and off in the brush, the snapping of David’s rifle and the “thump” of Bob’s M-79 grenade launcher.

Suddenly Rosie dropped me, changed magazines in his rifle, and knelt beside me. “You’re fucked up, Bumstead,” he growled. “Can you walk?’

“Can you walk? I can’t carry your scrawny ass all the way to the LZ.”

“Help me up.” With Rosie’s help, I made it to my feet. I took a tentative step, then another. The gallon of adrenalin in my system made the difference. I shrugged off my pack and other gear and unlashed my rifle case from the load bearing harness. I carried the long gun into the arena. I clutched the case tightly and left the rest where it lay. Rosie had my shotgun slung over his shoulder. “Yeah, I think I can hang. Let’s go!”

The pause had cost us whatever distance we’d gained on the NVA. Rosie kept his arm around me, helping me to fast-walk as we tried to get ahead of our pursuers. They were moving cautiously, but inexorably, on our trail. Hindsight says they were following us back to the LZ, knowing there would be better pickings there. We didn’t care; we just kept moving. To stop was to die.

Somehow we staggered the last mile to the LZ. Delta Company was set up on two dry rice paddies bisected by a narrow raised path along a dike not more than three feet high. We stumbled out of the tree line into the open, where soldiers from the nearest infantry platoon rushed out to meet us. Two of them relieved Rosie of his burden—me—and we all moved to cover behind the packed clay of the dike. As I looked around in dismay, the acting company commander—a first lieutenant—hustled over to where I lay.

“How badly are you hurt?” he asked.
“I’m okay, LT,” I managed to reply. My voice sounded strange, like I’d had a toke of helium. “We need to get out of here, now.”
“Why? The LZ’s secure.”
“LT, there’s a whole goddamn regiment of NVA on our ass. They’ll be here in five. You need to call for dustoff now.”
“We’re ready for ‘em.”
“Sir, I strongly suggest you pull your men back to that tree line and call for the choppers.”
“What? Why?”
“There are hundreds of those fuckers behind us! They’ll be here in a couple of minutes. Do it!”
“You don’t give me orders, sergeant.”
“Where’s the captain?”
“Not here. I’m in command.”

I rolled my eyes and kept silent. A retreat to the trees meant the arriving helicopters could give us cover to board as they came in between us and the dike. The lieutenant had deployed his men in the middle of the rice paddies along the slight protection of the elevated path running between them. Our backs would be to Charlie as we tried to board the Hueys. I didn’t need to be a West Point graduate to see that the position was untenable. We were in deep shit. I began assembling my .308. Rosie laid my shotgun on the ground beside me and looked into my eyes. He shook his head and sighed. He knew, as I did, that we were going to die here this day.

I had barely finished attaching the Bausch & Lomb telescopic sight and inserting the five-round stripper clip into the rifle’s magazine when a soldier down the line shouted “Damn! Look at that shit!”

The NVA had emerged from the trees in a line abreast. In a practiced parade ground movement, every other man dropped to the ground and began firing at us. The ones who remained standing began to run at full speed directly at us. I started to pick targets and fire methodically as the roar of gunfire increased.

Above the din, I could hear Rosie yelling our call sign into his radio. Randy, Bob, and David, my other three hooligans, were dispersed among the draftees firing desperately at the oncoming wave of enemy troops. For one hellish second, as I reloaded, I thought about shooting the lieutenant for putting us in this position. This was John-Wayne-Alamo-bullshit, and my peculiar sense of fatalism didn’t make allowances for dying on this spot. Worse than my sense of personal doom was the awful spectacle of seeing the draftees of Delta Company being shot to hell by the oncoming NVA troops.

“Back to the trees! Back to the trees!” It was the lieutenant, screaming as he covered his head against the onslaught. Common sense comes late to the foolish.
I grabbed Rosie’s arm as he fired over the top of the dike. “Pull ‘em back, man. Get ‘em out of here!”

He rolled over and waved his arm in the air, gesturing to our rear. “Odd men out, even men cover! Now!” he yelled. The thin line of troops along the dike began to fall back, dragging the dead and wounded with them. The lieutenant led his men back to the relative safety of the trees a hundred meters away. There, they stopped and began giving covering fire to those remaining on the line.

Slowly, the others fell back, still firing. I waved at my people to join the others in the retreat. Rosie grabbed at my arm, trying to haul me upright.
“You go,” I told him. “I’ll be right behind you.”
“I ain’t leaving your ass!”

He gave me a strange, sad look, and began to back away; still firing at the approaching NVA as he did so. I emptied my rifle, discarded it, and picked up the Winchester pump gun. Everyone else was in the trees, blazing away. I was the last man behind the dike. The NVA troops were more than halfway across the open area in front of me. I ducked down, and as I frantically shoved more shells into the shotgun, I felt a wave of remorse that I’d never see my twenty-first birthday, only a week away. I imagined my parents’ reaction when they got the telegram, or the visit from an Army chaplain. I thought of my fiancée, Eleanor, who’d refused to marry me until I came home safe from my tour of duty. She was young and pretty; she’d find someone better.

Watching the disciplined line approaching me, I came to a certain conclusion. I was dead. These were my last moments in an abbreviated life. There was nothing heroic or glorious in this moment. I was going to die on a barren patch of red dirt that stank of human shit and rotted fish.

Having reached this conclusion, I decided to make it quick and painless. I stood up and emptied the eight rounds in my shotgun at the NVA. Still holding the empty weapon, I turned my back on the enemy, and started to walk toward the distant trees. No running. No hurry. No zigzagging. That would make me a harder target for the inevitable. I might be crippled and taken prisoner instead of getting the merciful round through the back of the head.

I walked.

I staggered and dropped my weapon. I continued to walk, as though going out for an ice-cold Coke. I could hear the supersonic snap of bullets going past, and above that, the distant “whap-whap” of Huey rotors as the choppers approached.
I reached the first of the trees, and suddenly Rosie jumped in front of me and dragged me to the ground.

“What are you doing, you silly motherfucker?” he snarled. I took in his look of intense irritation, and burst out laughing. The din of gunfire was drowned out by the roar of the helicopters as they swept in, strafing the NVA troops with rockets and machine gun fire. I grayed out, and the world finally faded from monochrome to black.


The lieutenant I’d considered shooting was the one who put me in for a Bronze Star, probably out of guilt that he’d performed so badly in his first field command. His version of the events in the rice paddy had me feverishly covering his men’s withdrawal with total disregard for my own safety. The fact that I was running away from the enemy seemed irrelevant.

I tried to obtain some recognition for Rosie, but ran into the stone wall of bureaucracy. Regulations state that there has to be two witnesses to an act of valor, and my word alone, to the effect that Rosie ran back into enemy fire and saved my life, was not sufficient. Randy White corroborated my story, but his version of events was disregarded as “muddled” by the chaos of combat. David and Bob were too far away to see anything clearly. Rosie shrugs it off as the dumbest thing he’d ever done. The major who ultimately rejected my recommendation put it bluntly: “There were nearly a hundred men saw you cover them and walk away from that NVA regiment, but no one saw that nigger haul you out of the woods. Forget it, Webb.” I felt sicker in that moment than I had during my entire hospital stay. There was only one hero that day, and it certainly wasn’t me.

* * *
Gary Cole, a.k.a. Rosie, finished his tour of duty in Vietnam and transferred from the Army into the Navy. He spent sixteen years at sea, mostly on aircraft carriers, and finished his military career as a recruiter in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. He never regarded his actions that morning as more than another day’s work, and refuses to discuss the events with anyone besides me. He lives in comfortable retirement near LeMoore, California, with his wife Natasha. Their son, Jay, is a naval aviator aboard the USS John F. Kennedy. We still call each other “Bumstead” and “Rosie,” an intimacy that no one else is privy to.

Bob Giannoni lost a leg to a land mine on a subsequent mission, and was honorably discharged in 1973. His wife Sherry divorced him the following year. He moved to New Jersey, learned computer programming before computers became commonplace, and is now quite well-off and remarried.

Randy White was honorably discharged in 1974. He married his high school sweetheart. They had a daughter, then divorced several years later. Randy’s ex-wife died in a freak auto accident shortly afterward. He remarried, and he and his second wife had two children. He operates a thriving garage in Ft. Payne, Alabama.

David Gibson had some modest success as a singer/songwriter following his discharge from the Army in 1980. When her success in show business outstripped his, David’s wife left him for another woman and became a celebrity under a name that I will not mention here.

Our team continued to run missions in Nam until 1973. After Bob lost his leg, I was recruited into the parent organization of SOG, the Central Intelligence Agency, because of my field performance in SpecOps. The company put me through college, where I eventually obtained a Master’s degree in Political Science. After graduation, they found an assortment of odd jobs around the world for me.

In 2000, on an assignment in Kosovo to gather war crimes evidence against Slobodan Milosevic, I was shot in the back by Muslim guerillas, rendering me a paraplegic. Learning to walk again following surgery is the second-hardest thing I’ve ever done, besides quitting drinking.

And, although I hate to admit it, Rosie was right. I do resemble Dagwood Bumstead.

9-14 September 2003


Green Beanie: a Special Forces soldier; one who wears the elite Green Beret.

NVA: North Vietnamese Army; regular troops, as opposed to the Viet Cong guerrillas.

Parrot’s Beak: a geographical area of Cambodia that extends into South Vietnam; its proximity to the then-capital of Saigon made it a high-traffic point-of-entry for NVA troops and supplies moving in from the north.

Ho Chi Minh trail: a large logistical artery of vehicular roads, high-speed foot trails, and camouflaged layover sites that ran from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam. The routing through allegedly neutral countries precluded serious aerial interdiction until the last two years of the war.

SpecOps: Special Operations; not to be confused with Special Forces. See SOG.

SOG: Special Operations Group; euphemistically called the “Studies and Observation Group” by squeamish PR weenies who didn’t want to admit the existence and reality of SpecOps.

Agent Orange: a defoliant commonly used to denude areas of Vietnam and Cambodia during the war; said to be safe, it has subsequently proven to cause cancer and genetic damage to those unfortunate enough to be exposed to it, as troops and civilians inevitably were.

Arclight: a series of bombing missions that became a generic term for strikes by B-52 Stratofortresses.

Carpet bombing: from a distance, the pattern of bomb detonations from an Arclight strike looked very much like God’s own huge carpet being unrolled. The shockwaves would kill birds in the trees in areas not directly struck by the bombs. To be on the receiving end was very unpleasant for man and beast alike.

Piasters: the local Vietnamese currency, worth about two/tenths of a penny. 50,000 piasters was equal to $100, about five times the $20 the average peasant earned in a year.

Arty: artillery.

Charlie: from the term Victor Charles, meaning VC, meaning Viet Cong. The Viet Cong were properly irregular paramilitary units composed of South Vietnamese communists, but the term “Charlie” became synonymous with “gooks,” “zipperheads” and “little people.”

Unass: to beat feet; to clear out of a location at maximum possible speed.

LZ: Landing Zone; an area where helicopters pick up and disembark troops and supplies.

Hooch: a hut or other form of shelter constructed from locally available materials.

Cambodian Red: a particularly potent variety of indigenous marijuana.

Double tap: a firing pattern where one sends two bullets to do the job of one. Most effective.

K-bar: a Marine fighting knife of great durability and versatility; highly prized by both sides, and still in use by our Armed Forces today.

M-60: a light machine gun; ostensibly served by a two-man crew, it can be effectively carried and used by one man in the field. Sometimes referred to as a “hog.”

AK-47: the ubiquitous Russian-designed Kalashnikov assault rifle; the weapon of choice for terrorists and Third World armies the world over to this day. A sturdy, simple, dependable firearm.

Rock ‘n roll: slang for full automatic mode on a select-fire weapon like the M-16 assault rifle or the AK-47.

Huey: the UH-1 helicopter, used primarily for troop movement and medical evacuation; since being superseded by the Blackhawk in our military, the Huey remains in service throughout the world in a variety of roles.

M-79: a 40 mm grenade launcher; think of a sawed-off shotgun on steroids. Sometimes referred to as a “thumper.”

LT: common verbal abbreviation for “lieutenant,” pronounced “el-tee.”

Dustoff: air evacuation by helicopter.

How Dad did it

By popular demand, I will post this one last time. My father was born in 1907. He would have been 100 years old on 12th December 2007. He might not have made it; his health was bad. He was murdered on 3 December 1985. I cringe when I hear the term "passed on." He was "taken" in the worst way. The first shot took him in the shoulder; he knew what was coming.

A righteous God threw his shooter under a truck in the 1990s. There is a 97% probability that one of these two trailer-trash scumbags killed my father.

Years before I was born, my father did something amazing:

I’m not an artist, and hardly computer literate, so that’s the best I can illustrate it. It doesn't even show up here.

What it was, was a two-mile ride that my father and a fellow named Calvin Sticher went on one winter during what has come to be called the Battle of the Bulge. There are no official maps, and I had to invent one.

My old man was born in 1907, and when War II rolled in on America, he was already a “pappy” by contemporary standards. He’d put himself through Georgia Tech by first attending barber’s college and cutting hair during the Depression of the 1930s. He studied radio technology in its fledgling days. When he enlisted in the Third Armored Division following the horror of 7 December 1941, he was assigned to the 143rd Armored Signal Company as a jeep messenger; a rather cushy job for the older guys back then. Dad and Sticher stormed ashore on D-Day in their jeep, and rode with the Spearhead Division from Utah Beach in Normandy to Stolberg, Germany. On 19 December 1944 the German offensive broke loose, and everything collapsed into chaos.

What follows is based upon my father’s recollections to me as a child; official records, and my own walk across what I believe was the terrain they traveled that morning:

When the German offensive kicked off, everything was in flux. The Panzers were rolling, and everyone was hustling to regroup.

Dad and Sticher were sent on a delivery mission of fire coordinates to a field artillery group gathered in some woods several miles from divisional headquarters. The road was a small dirt path that winds between two ridges, a sharply defined one to the east, and a series of rolling hills to the west. They arrived at dusk on the 21st of December, 1944.

The mission for the artillery was to impede the advance of the German tanks through the valley, using the coordinates delivered from HQ via my father. They apparently fulfilled their mission that night, as evidenced by the events of 22 December.

When my father and Sticher attempted to leave the wooded area the artillery was grouped in, they were halted by pickets who declared the road unsafe for passage. There were German tanks out there, the guards said, and they had severed the road connecting the artillery base with divisional HQ.

Dad and Sticher parked their jeep in the trees, and crawled into a culvert beneath the roadway to spend the night. They hoped for better passage at first light the next morning.

Dawn found them confronted with a ground-hugging fog that limited visibility to the length of one’s arm. As Webb and Sticher rolled their sleeping bags in preparation to stowing them in their jeep, they heard voices murmuring in the fog. The voices were speaking German.

My father was armed with an M-1 .30 caliber carbine; Sticher, as driver, carried a .45 Thompson submachine gun.

They stood their ground and waited as the voices approached them in the fog. Four black uniforms of the Waffen SS resolved out of the milky gloom, and stood staring in disbelief at the two terrified GIs who had the drop on them.

What Webb and Sticher had was a colonel and three lieutenants of a German Panzer company. Disoriented in the fog, they had dismounted to scout the terrain on foot prior to leading their tanks down the valley. They had walked straight down the road and into the guns of two hapless soldiers from the other side.

With gestures and threatening motions, Webb and Sticher disarmed the amazed Nazis and marched them up the road to the artillery unit. There they relieved the Germans of a map case. Although it was not a complete order of battle, it illustrated enough information about the impending Panzer threat to be considered a prize if delivered to divisional HQ.

“You can’t do that. There are tanks sitting on the road; we’ve been shooting at them all night long.” So Webb and Sticher were informed by the artillery observers. There was no way out of the valley except the road they’d come in on, and that road was straddled by Tiger tanks.

Without hesitation, Webb and Sticher took the belts from the captured German colonel and secured his arms. Then they placed him in the back seat of their jeep. The fog was still thick, and they set out on the road through the valley.

The panzer commanders, hearing the motor of the jeep, began firing down the valley as Webb and Sticher wove a reckless path toward them. .88 mm high-velocity shells lit up the gloom as the little jeep charged the Tigers. The Germans could not bore-sight their tanks fast enough to get a bead on the jeep, and it wove between two of them, made the right turn, and was out of the valley before the Germans had sufficient time to realize that they had been the victims of a drive-by.

The German colonel spoke good English, and upon his delivery to the American HQ, did not waste time proclaiming the insanity of the two soldiers who had delivered him. An officer from G-2 sought out Webb and Sticher, who had gone in search of coffee and dried eggs in the aftermath of their little adventure. They modestly agreed that they had brought the officer and his maps back to HQ, as it seemed like the thing to do at the time.

Webb and Sticher were later awarded the Silver Star for gallantry. Robert S. Webb died in 1985, the victim of an unsolved murder, after 28 years as a Postal Service employee. I do not know what happened to Calvin Sticher. His last known address was in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1947.

I do not draw well, and I do not know if the valley I walked in 1986 was the one my father and Calvin Sticher drove down. I only know what I am told, and wear a German jacket my father snatched from the front seat of a burning Nazi half-track during that epic battle. The rest is history.

I can't recreate the map of the terrain here. Use your imagination.

Friday, November 09, 2007

"We Support the Troops!"

Well, another week, and another wonderment, to bend the old cliché. Unfortunately, most of my wonderment is fixed in pessimistic observations of The Far Left. Those People—as Robert E. Lee graciously called his enemies—are totally beyond the pale. When I was a young, foolish child, I was a Left Wing loon who didn’t know any better because I didn’t think things through. The quote has many attributions, but I go with Von Hindenberg: “If you are not a liberal when you are young, you have no heart. If you are not a conservative when you are older, you have no brain.”

A few days ago, I was harshly handled by a liberal friend because of an alleged attack on her family; i.e. “using them as blog fodder”. I reviewed all 186 of my blog posts at UPI since 2005, and when I replied with the falsity of her accusation, I received the de rigueur apology. All this because I had made a personal reply of disbelief that her sister is teaching her kindergarten-age nephew that George W. Bush is an evil ogre who aggrandizes the rich, plotted 9/11 with evil corporate types to steal the Constitution, and is engaged in a super-conspiracy to establish some sort of Christian, conservative theocracy in America. My friend was actually proud that her sister has such “progressive” views.

I was aghast. If an adult, with fully-formed views of the world, comes to me and spouts such rubbish, I’ll sigh and engage in a debate, armed with facts on my side that an adult can comprehend. I’ll speak slowly and use monosyllabic words that even the most ardent liberal can understand.

Programming a child with such partisan political viewpoints borders on abuse, in my humble opinion.

I was a child of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. I heard some incomprehensible grumblings from the grown-ups about [Supreme Court Justice] Earl Warren, and the nepotism of the Kennedy clan. They fretted about a Communist named Khrushchev, and a nuclear-wielding petty dictator named Castro. They watched a far-away war in a place called Vietnam, and worried about the future as it escalated.

What they didn’t do was plop me into a seat and lecture me on what they considered the goods and evils of America. They were grown-ups, and they considered it incumbent upon themselves to exercise the Serenity prayer: the serenity to accept the things they couldn’t change, the courage to change the things they could, and the wisdom to know the difference. They knew I would eventually inherit the mess of the post-modern world, but they didn’t indoctrinate me in their view of what was good or bad at the time. They were not acquainted with Ayn Rand and her philosophical view of morality; that came to me later through independent study.

Instead they gave me two invaluable gifts. They allowed me to enjoy my childhood, and discover the world at my own pace. More importantly, they raised me to think for myself. They didn’t explicitly tell me what was right or wrong, by their lights, but they urged me to examine things as they exist and draw my own conclusions. They taught me that once you seize onto a belief, you stand beside it if you’re sincere, and be prepared to defend that belief with facts and reason.

My parents weren’t some kind of enlightened ultra-progressives for instilling this in me. They were conservative, Christian products of The Great Depression of the 1920s-‘30s. My father fought Nazis in War II, and my uncles fought Japanese Imperialism in the Pacific during that war. They all came home with a common goal: my cousins and I would be richer, better educated, and more aware of the world than they had been.

I have some cousins who have done outstanding things; one of them was Secretary of the Navy. Another is a renowned composer/songwriter who wrote several mega-hits of the 1960s. Another, more distant cousin is a country/western superstar of legendary proportions. I’m kind of the black sheep of the family; I aspired to be a hell-raiser and trouble-maker, and succeeded quite nicely in that field of endeavor. Every family has its dark side.

Despite my failure of expectations, I retained my parents’ legacy of the gift of thought. It became the standard for my life, and the one thing I tried to pass along to my children. It’s a simple concept: think!

I don’t care what you, or anyone, believe, as long as you think about it. You have your mind made up, commit to it, make a stand, and may the best intellect win, based upon the most factual input. When I was young, stupid, and in rebellion, I wasted a lot of time shouting slogans I didn’t really understand. I suppose that’s part of growing up. Another of my cousins set me straight on this during a marathon night. He wasn’t a celebrity; Weyman was a Special Forces op [Green Beret] who had served three tours in Nam at the time he confronted me. He went on to serve a fourth tour, then abruptly resigned and returned to South Carolina to run his daddy’s feed store.

That may not be the stuff of Hollyweird heroes, but he shared that gift of thinking, and for reasons he’s never bothered to explain to this day, his thoughts and beliefs led him to turn his back on a limitless military career.

My own thinking and observations have led me down The Grateful Dead’s “long, strange road.” I am not the sharpest pencil in the jar, and my thinking has too often proven faulty. Nevertheless, I stood by what I believed, and continue to do so.

Circling back to the present, I was taken aback because of my simple admonition to my friend. I didn’t “attack her family”; I urged what my folks taught me: think! I sent an e-mail in this regard. Don’t ruin that child’s youth with partisan indoctrination; teach him to think, and eventually cut him loose to do so. Kids are amazingly resilient, and quite capable of deciding for themselves what’s right or wrong, often at an alarmingly young age.

So, I offer my humble opinion about “Think!”, and I get slimed like a Ghostbuster. Some vast schism has opened between at least one of my liberal friends and myself. Robert Duvall from “Open Range” echoes: “And for what? More cows?”

I back liberals on one general principal: I don’t like the direction of the Iraq war. I think it could have been handled more efficiently. That said, I take umbrage with every funeral protester, cowardly cut-and-run politician, and those punks who are re-creating the Nam era by spitting on our troops. My attention span is formed by reading books and writing letters by hand; I haven’t forgotten the horror of 9/11, nor do I underestimate the threat to America if liberal appeasement continues.

Call me a neo-Nazi if you wish, but the next time you stomp a cockroach in your kitchen, think. That’s what terrorists are: cockroaches. Think about the principle that applies to leaving them kids alone, as Pink Floyd said. You want to do something positive for their future, give them the gift I was given: tell them to think, and then stand back and see what happens. We still have nuclear-wielding despots, far-away wars, and an uncertain future. Socialism died in Western Europe with the USSR, but it's much closer to home with the next presidential election.

(This should not be construed as an “attack” on anyone’s family. All persons mentioned herein are products of the author’s imagination, and no reference to actual persons, living or dead, should be inferred. No animals were harmed in the composition of this blog post.)