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The Way We Were

Recently, I listened to an old song, “The Way We Were.” There were lines about “misty” memories. My thoughts went back to the Vietnam War so long ago, and I thought about how much it has meant to me to share my thoughts and memories here in Tales of the Wolfhounds. Then I was reminded of something a general said in a recorded speech when he turned his command over to his successor: “All good things must come to an end.” That time has come for Tales of the Wolfhounds. But there are a few things I should say first, about soldiers in our war.

We infantrymen were a rough bunch, tough-minded and unsympathetic with each other. Some would even term it cruel. “Did your mother have any children who didn’t have two left feet?” You get the idea. Our language was laced with acronyms and what we called GI slang. When a trainee asked a sergeant how deep to dig the hole for his fighting position, the answer was likely to be “Two by two by you.”

In government circles, there used to be a term called “civilian equivalency.” Like many other terms in bureaucratic jargon, it was an overblown, often misused expression. Actually, it meant little more than pay equivalency. The other bits of meaning it conveyed were more closely associated with 1970s vintage social-leveling experiments. The United States government seems to consider them necessary inflictions on its citizens from time to time. And as our government monolith grew in our society, it forgot about the words that read, “with the consent of the governed.” But I am not overly bitter. Jefferson was right. The Tree of Liberty will get watered in due course.

I will admit freely that my tendency is to make harsh judgments. And you should take my opinions with a grain of salt. Another feature of my personality is that I am an adrenalin junkie, and have been one for most of my life. I have tried hard to cover it up in some of my important personal relationships, but it is there, and it has brought unhappiness in some of them.

In the infantry, enjoying risk-taking may not be a military skill. It may indeed be a flaw. I do not know if it was a product of Scots-Gaelic, German, or Native American ancestry. I can only guess about its origin. But it has generated many exciting things in my life. Those of us who share the Edelweiss badge of the Alpenjaegers of the German army know the excitement of Schuss-booming down a steep alpine slope on heavy cargo skis. Those who have shared the electric tension of crawling out on a wing strut in a light plane to parachute to the ground know it. Those who have bucked the rapids of an uncontrollable stream in a rubber raft or small boat know it. Those who have urged an excited horse over a raised bar know it. Those who have sailed in the darkness with reefed sails in gale force winds know it. And those who lead soldiers forward under the crack of rifle rounds passing overhead know it-- pure, raw excitement.

But that is not the mainspring of my life. My life experience has been powerfully enriched and broadened by heroes and role models. When I was a student at the College of William and Mary, I met the first of my warrior-heroes in the school’s ROTC instructor group--Captain Wilbur Jenkins, Infantry, United States Army. Jenkins was a graduate of Texas A&M and he started me on a course toward becoming an infantry officer. In my mind’s eye I can see him today, observing a squad on the drill field. His eye caught every feature of the squad’s performance. He would eye a single member of the squad, and blast: “Get the barrel of that WHEAPON up!” That was how infantrymen learned to say the word in those days to make it understood clearly in radio-telephone conversations.

Later on, in the Vietnam War, as a colonel, during a stalled attack, Jenkins would win the Distinguished Service Cross by standing up under fire, and yelling to his ground-hugging men the slogan of American infantry, “Follow me!”

Back in the 1960s, when we applied for Army branch assignments, I wanted his opinion. When I told him that I intended to refuse commissioning in any branch other than infantry, he nodded gravely, but I remember the twinkle in his eye. And when the time came for branch assignments, it was not a problem, of course. Getting into the infantry was very simple.

At the infantry school at Fort Benning, I gained two heroes. One was the legendary Colonel Robert B. Nett, who is described elsewhere in these pages. Colonel Nett was head of the Ranger Department, and he personally influenced hundreds, more probably thousands of officers who were trained as infantry leaders.

Captain Charles Edward Purser, the executive officer of the Infantry School Battalion was another.

I met Charlie Purser in the fall of 1962. I had just graduated from the Infantry officer basic course, and along with two other green second lieutenants was assigned as assistant operations officer while we waited for orders to our permanent assignments. We were given odd jobs to do, mainly teaching classes in current events, first aid, heat casualty prevention and the like. The classes were usually scheduled right after lunch, and the biggest challenge was keeping the soldiers awake. The other two lieutenants got their orders within a couple of weeks, and were gone. One day in October, Captain Purser called me in, told me we had a hurry-up job to do, and we set out for a block of ratty, unoccupied barracks south of the theater on the Main Post. The U.S. was just getting involved in the Cuban Missile crisis, and Purser told me our mission was to establish the facilities for a replacement battalion, with sufficient barracks and support facilities to process a thousand men a day through it. During the next ten days, under Charlie Purser's tutelage, I learned what it meant to be an officer, and to solve problems under a deadline. The problems came thick and fast. Working with forced labor from the Post Stockade, we operated around the clock, snatching a couple of hours sleep at a time on cots near the phone and the coffee pot, which was always plugged in. Charlie taught me a lifetime lesson in that short space of time--never to substitute words for action, and the value of a "can-do" attitude. At last we were finished. The barracks were equipped, clean, and ready. The Replacement Detachment personnel who would occupy the place would arrive from California the next day. As Charlie and I sat drinking coffee, I asked him what was next. He grinned and said, "Well, tomorrow the people who will use this place will be ready to process replacements for the combat casualties we can expect if we go to war with Cuba or the Soviet Union. I figure they will need company commanders and platoon leaders--you and I will be the first two names on the list!"

Later, as a major, Purser died in Vietnam. I never forgot his leadership.

I added more heroes as I gained experience in infantry units. Captain Jake Holland commanded the first rifle company in which I served as a rifle platoon leader, Company A, First Battalion, 28th Infantry in the First Infantry Division—the Big Red One. Jake was another tough, exemplary infantry leader who would die fighting to the death in Vietnam when his small Special Forces outpost was overrun.

In Company A, Fifth Battle Group, 31st Infantry, my company commander was Captain Edward Gordon Hale. As his executive officer, I learned the importance of management as a parallel to leadership. Ed Hale would die before he left that assignment, in a helicopter accident. He was one of my heroes.

I had my share of heroes who were sergeants, the men who enable all military units to operate as they were designed to do. Three of them who had great positive influence on me were Master Sergeant John S. Heflin, Master Sergeant John W. Spilman, and First Sergeant Elmer Hamm.

In combat, I was privileged to command Company A, Second Battalion, 18th Infantry, in the Big Red One in 1967-1968. There was no shortage of heroes for me in that fine company, including men like Clarence Dempsey, Jerry Peck and Denny Sullivan, who have remained lifelong friends.

Most of my other heroes are Wolfhounds named in these pages. To sum up, describing them requires only one word—character. A more detailed description would run an alphabetical gamut of soldierly arts and skills-- from alertness to z-coordinate. In our war, in appearance there was little to distinguish one soldier from another. What were we like? In dress and appearance, there was always the steel helmet on top, covered with a faded camouflage canvas cover. The cover, held in place by an elastic strap, helped control noise generated by scraping the steel against vegetation and other natural objects.

But its chief value to the individual infantryman was as a signboard. It advertised the date of a soldier’s return home, a girlfriend’s name, or sometimes a concise, profane acronym indicating his views of military service. It was the one place he could always express his individuality.

Under the steel and around the infantryman’s neck was the sweat-soaked olive-green towel, which helped ease the bite of canvas straps supporting weapons, backpacks and gear. And around the soldier’s neck were things hanging and swinging-- Identification “dog” tags, crosses, chains, bootlaces holding keys, a sweetheart’s locket, or sometimes beads, peace symbols, badges or other things. Often they were one of few reminders of home in that hostile place.

The field uniform worn by combat infantrymen varied, depending on the level and ferocity of combat. The worst-case scenario called for filthy, torn jungle fatigues. Rips and tears were sometimes temporarily mended with insulated communications wire. Underwear was not worn, and the crotch seams were ripped open to ease answering calls of nature under fire. “Laundering” the smelly garments was accomplished by turning them inside out, putting them back on and washing them with a bar of soap. Then the uniform was removed, reversed, and the process was repeated. It gave the term “wash and wear” an entirely new meaning.

When units were sent back to base camps for “maintenance” stand-downs, the first event was showers with unlimited hot water. Then brand-new uniforms were issued. The old ones were destined for burning.

You could tell a lot about a Vietnam infantryman by looking at his boots. If the leather was a scuffed, ill-defined off-white color with faded green nylon uppers he was an old hand. If the leather was still black, he was an FNG, the acronym soldiers made up to describe inexperience in the war. He was a “fucking new guy.” It was not a derogatory expression. At the starting point in our Vietnam experience, everyone was an FNG. Some wore stars on their shoulders. Many more arrived in Vietnam as slick-sleeve privates. Collectively, we are history, and a brief slice of American history at that.

It was long ago, and I will let the historical thread go, as old men do, trying to glimpse again in my mind’s eye the days of vanished youth. But let it go I must. Nec Aspera Terrent.

Bayonets!

Copyright 2012 by Howard Landon McAllister

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