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The Rifleman

Iron Mike "Follow Me", Ft. Benning, GA   

American infantrymen have always had a sense of humor. It is apparent in the names they pick to describe themselves. Those who served in World War II called themselves dogfaces. The term is borrowed from the great horsemen of the American plains, the Cheyenne, who identified one of their two great warrior societies as dog soldiers. The name persisted through the Korean War, which was mostly fought by World War II veterans. In the Vietnam War, the idiom changed. The soldiers themselves picked a word that described the sound they made as they lifted heavy rucksacks to their backs, bathed in environmental sweat and grime on bodies and uniforms that had been together too long. Aptly, they called themselves grunts.

Various writers have speculated on the origin of the term, and one theory is as good as another. But there is no question about the appropriateness of grunts. A connection with the word by former Vietnam War infantrymen is a matter of pride to them. They used it even when that part of their lives was put behind them in one way or another—by reassignment, leaving the service, or by an enemy bullet. Those who remain alive today wear it like a badge.

As an old man, my heart and mind are too full of memories of their deeds to make good sense of it. The names come in a rush, and when I pause to think about it, I can never be sure of dates or times, or actions, or any of the chronological measures. But that hardly matters. In my mind’s eye, it is like the brilliant flashes of an artist’s oil on canvas. To me it is as important as the thing George Bernard Shaw identified as the “true joy,” and it is the same thing that General Douglas MacArthur called the “animation of successful patriotism.” The infantrymen were the finest men I ever knew. They had the courage to stand up in a storm, and most of them were there by no choice of their own. To borrow another term, this time from Kipling, in their risk and sacrifices, they were men without border nor breed nor birth. And their lives lend additional meaning to my belief in my country and the opportunities it had provided me.

This is an essential quality that eludes professional politicians and other low orders of human activity. There are things that are worth dying for. Our country? Our religion? In Vietnam, the stark truth is that many of us infantrymen died for each other. Unless they have served in combat, the politicians who make speeches on the subject do not know any more about it than they know about the back side of the moon. War is no more a merciless endeavor than the natural selection that sweeps one tiny bird from a nest while preserving others. But it is a measure of the character of men, or their lack of it, when the requirement for action under fire is thrust upon them.

My first real awareness of the character, toughness, and “follow me” spirit of infantry leaders was at Fort Benning, Georgia in 1962, when I was a “shavetail” lieutenant—a temporary officer bound for law school after a couple of years in the Army, or so I thought at the time. While I was in high school, I had joined the Virginia National Guard, and had been assigned to the heavy mortar company of the 116th Infantry, a proud old unit with lineage dating back to the “Stonewall” brigade of the American civil war. And on June 6, 1944, as Cannon Company of the 116th, the unit had waded ashore under fire on Omaha beach in Normandy. The shell-torn blue swallow-tail flag of that company was in a glass case behind the desk of the commander of the national guardsmen. There was little genuine resemblance between the two units.

At Fort Benning, I was exposed to the real thing, and it was easily recognizable. In the middle of a long night following an exhausting training exercise, I sat with wet and shivering companions by a dying campfire. An unshaven colonel in a dirty, sweaty fatigue uniform materialized out of the darkness and sat down beside us. Chewing on a big unlit cigar, he had questions for us, but he also had answers. He was the legendary Colonel Robert B. Nett, who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War II. He was among the first in a long line of my personal heroes from every rank in the Army from private E-1 to major general. He was one of the images that guided my life and will continue to do so as long as I draw breath. He was one of the men who built a fire in my soul that enabled me to identify the qualities and the people I have admired most in life. They were the infantrymen, who had the guts to do their jobs in combat despite its hazards. If they did it long enough, sooner or later they would be in the sights of an enemy rifleman, and they knew it.

Their names and faces from so long ago run together in one long string in my thoughts. There is no need to apply ranks or other information. Some, like Jerry Peck and Denny Sullivan were in the Second Battalion of the 18th Infantry in the First Infantry Division, my first unit in combat. Most of the rest were Wolfhounds. Living or dead, they are my brothers. I have kept track of some of them through reunions and the modern miracle of the internet. Many of their names appear in Tales of the Wolfhounds. And others include Mike O’Connor, Dana Martin, Larry Coulter, Terry Ballentine, Jerry McKinney, Mike Marcukaitis, Ron Straight, Steve Randock, Paul “Gabby” Gaither, Sam de Mattos, Jr, David Shepherd, Gerald Maddock, Nelson Fox, Bill Vaught, Gary “Viper”Assell, Merrill Sellers, Tom Roeske, Fred “Rabbi” Kramer, Al Sims, Fred Middleton, Gordie Maga, and Big John Quintrell. There were thousands more, including Frank Cassin, and many of their names are engraved on that black, granite wall in Washington. I can remember many faces to which I cannot attach a name. But there is one thing we should all remember. All of us who survived combat in Vietnam owe our lives in part to other Wolfhounds, and the debt will last as long as we live.

And it goes on. Both of the two Wolfhound battalions have served in three wars since Vietnam. Wolfhounds have died and others will die as they wear our uniform in harm’s way. The Latin inscription on the unit emblem—nec aspera terrent is an ancient one. It appeared on the metal cap plates of British grenadiers in the American Revolution. It is sometimes translated as “frightened by no difficulties,” but the Wolfhounds like to translate it as “no fear on earth.” The Americanization of the term is typical of the vitality of the U.S. infantry. Present-day Wolfhounds have given it the ring of a verbal challenge: No Fear! As my old friend and comrade Major Charles Darrell used to say, the emblem looks like a fraternity pin—and that is as it should be. We are a fraternity—of brothers in blood.

Copyright 2011 by Howard Landon McAllister

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