It was the summer of 1971

Posted: 09/21/2012 in 1970, blather, not Viet Nam, The US ARMY (c) 1970
Tags: , ,

It was the summer of 1971.

The de-escalation of troops in Viet Nam had finally reached numbers under 200,00. The Pentagon Papers were being published in the New York Times and talked about on the news every night. Only a few months earlier Walter Cronkite had declared the war un-winnable. The heat during the day at Indian Town Gap Military Reservation in  Pennsylvania had been oppressive during the weeks that B company had been undergoing basic training. In only a few more days we would, each and every one of us, regardless of competence, be commissioned as Officers in the United States Army.  There was only one thought in our heads–.

Just over eight weeks ago we came here to be marched and dragged and abused and humiliated into shape. A shape worthy of being called officers in the US Army Infantry. Fodder for the Viet Cong and our fellow soldiers as we led the charge through jungles we couldn’t even imagine.  Tonight was the final test. The last night of a 3 day field exercise that had forced us to use our training in a mock-battle situation.  At dawn there would be an attack. An attack that would undoubtedly prove that we were no match for the battle-hardened infamous 82nd Airborne; our enemy for the weekend.

Tonight as the men of Alpha Squad lay spread across the underbrush, a cool breeze picked up. A welcome sign near the end of a difficult few days. No one had really died, though most of us would have several times, if the bullets had been real. Gun fire exploded in the distance and the sounds of shouting. Us? Them? Just Bullshit? Gary Thomas, a cadet from a Connecticut Military college rolled towards me. From the depths of his boot he pulled a joint and lit it. He took a hit and passed it to me…

“Are you crazy? We’ll go to jail if they catch us”…I toked and passed it to the left.

“They don’t give a fuck about us. They’re having too much fun scaring the shit out of  some other company right now. You heard our orders, we are to attack at dawn from the North side of that hill just ahead where they will blow the shit out of us and  prove once and for all that we don’t deserve to be officers- besides we outrank the assholes, they know that.”

Gary was our squad leader. He was very convincing most of the time. He kept us running when we could have stopped; encouraged us to do ten more push ups than we had to; made fun out of cleaning toilets; anything to piss the trainers off and show them we were not only up to it, but better than them. And mostly, that we thought they were assholes. We had shouted louder, run faster, carried more and out soldiered their every request. Now as we lay in the dark smoking pot on the hillside we knew that if we followed their latest orders, they would get the last laugh.

As the joint made its way back down the line an idea dawned on Gary. Why follow their  orders? It was obvious that they were leading us into an ambush. Why not rethink this thing ourselves like real officers.

Why not, indeed.

After all, they were grunts, we were college graduates only 2 days away from becoming officers. For some unimaginable reason, we all agreed.  Almost immediately we began shifting our position slowly to the opposite side of the hill. After a couple of hours we were in position just below the bunker from which we were all to be massacred (if we had been coming from the other direction).  We decide to sleep a bit.

At some point in the early morning we heard a raiding party attack the positions we had previously held on the opposite side of the mountain.

“Assholes”

Just as the sun began to come up Gary nudged me awake and I nudged the next guy and so on, till we all sat quietly watching as he ordered us to surround the bunker and attack at his signal.

The 82nd were asleep or facing the other direction as we crested the hill and came forward shouting and firing like a bunch of bad children playing army in the park.

We were very proud of ourselves. We had surprised them and victory was ours in a game we were meant to loose.  Except, as the commanding officer was quick to point out, we had cheated. If we had been in “Nam” we would have died and cost others their lives as well. He had to admit it was a good attack, but the most important thing in any military situation was to follow orders and as officers we should value that above all else… We all wondered if Rusty Calley would agree.

We weren’t punished. We got to be officers anyway.  (then again maybe we were being punished).  At the closing comments when the exercise was officially over, the commander took one more opportunity to chastise us for not following orders even if those orders seemed to be illogical. In private he shared the joke with us and said it was a smooth move.

Two days later on a steaming July morning in a dusty and pompous ceremony, with families present, we all became Officers and Gentlemen. As my 2 year old son pinned  the gold bar to my hat, I wondered how much longer I would get to know him.

The drive home from Pennsylvania and the next few days were underscored with thoughts of what seemed inevitable to me.  I was 22 years old, married with a son, a brand new Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, and a dreaded commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Infantry. The life expectancy of a 2nd Louie in Viet Nam was about 72 hours in country and those were the good ones.

I had gambled this day would never happen. After the lottery had given me a very low number and my son was born, I happily signed the papers to stay in ROTC and finish  college. Surely the war would be over by the time I graduated. Surely, I would pay my obligation as a weekend warrior somewhere until they tired of me or the time painlessly ran away…surely this war couldn’t last forever.

Over the next week or so; waiting for the orders to arrive sending me inevitably to the Infantry Officers Advanced Course at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and then to South East Asia I thought of anything but Viet Nam.  My Wife and son and I visited family and friends rather enjoying the limbo we had been granted. No responsibilities, yet. No point making any plans. Maybe the war would end tomorrow. Maybe not.

Then it came

The Official letter from the Department of the Army;

Dear Lieutenant Smith:

We regret to inform you that we are unable to accommodate you in your present branch of the US Army. We find ourselves with a surplus of Infantry Officers and must request that you accept a transfer to another branch.

In the rest of the letter I was asked to choose a branch of the Army in which I would like to serve and even given the opportunity to suggest where I would like to be stationed.  Ever the cynic;  I decided I could say anything and they would do whatever they damned well pleased.  I suggested that I would like to work for Special Services and be stationed in New York, City and returned the letter that very day.

It seemed like only minutes until the Official Orders arrived. I was to report to Ft. Benjamin Harrison Indiana to begin my training as an Adjutant General Corps officer in 2 weeks.  I would receive an apartment in the married officers quarters and go to school for 8 weeks before being reassigned to my first “permanent” position.   The Army was looking up!

I never allowed myself to consider, even for a minute, the fact that AG Officers held personnel and administrative positions with every Batallion, wherever they happened to be: Saigon, Phnom Phen, wherever.   I was about to learn a lot about the Army.

On a steamy Monday in August of 1971 my wife, Jenny;  son, Christopher and I began our adventure in a battleship grey 1961 Volkswagon Beattle with a loaded Uhaul trailer attached to its already fragile rear bumper. We left West Virginia, heading  across Ohio and Westward  to Indianapolis, Indiana and Ft. Benjamin Harrison.

The little VW that had traveled the mountains of West Virginia for four years of college did its best, but was not quite up to the task with all the extra weight. Somewhere just over the Indiana border we stopped to spend the night while we waited for our generator to be replaced. We were a 22 year old couple with a delightful child and our whole lives ahead of us. This was not the future we had planned (as if we had actually taken the time to plan anything in the 60’s and early 70’s) but it was not in the direction of the War – it bought us at the very least a little more time,  and for the first time in four years we actually would have money. An officer’s salary was considerably better than we were used to. We felt very grown up and respectable, though we would never have confessed that to any of our friends.

As the VW made its way across Ohio and into Indiana, I made an important decision. So far the Army had been okay (admittedly it hadn’t been that long) to me. Maybe if I gave this officer thing my best shot, I could get something useful out of it. Something besides a purple heart  and a permanent disability. I decided if I was any kind of an actor I was going to act like the best damned officer the Army and Ft. Ben Harrison  had ever seen; or as close as I could get to it anyway. Who knows maybe I would like it. I’d had a lot of shitty jobs already how bad could it be.

I reported for duty at Ft. Harrison on a cool September Friday. The “entry” process was more like to going to college than going to war and after several hours of paperwork, I was assigned quarters and told to report to class Monday morning at 9:00AM. That was it.

I found Jenny and Chris at a playground not far away and we headed off to see our new home. Due to a housing shortage on post all new students were being billeted in a nearby trailer court where the Army had converted a number of double sized trailers into duplex apartments. Each apartment had two bedrooms, a living/dining/kitchen area and a bath. The furniture was generic motel furniture but it was there, it was new and it was free. We were fairly happy with it.  Jenny and Chris would spend the most time there anyway since I would be in school all day and studying most nights. Jen was very adaptable, a good explorer and would feel right at home in no time. Our “trailer” mates Richie and his wife Linda had a young son Chris’ age so that was a plus –He was a tow-head and Chris had orange hair so they made quite a colorful pair. Jenny seemed to like Linda allright

So things were looking good.

We had the weekend to get settled so we unpacked, returned our U-Haul and drove around Indianapolis in our “now sputtering” bug and wondered how long before it would need yet another generator or worse.

Classes were interesting and relatively easy for me. All that was required was to memorize facts and form numbers and many, many acronym-ed procedures, and spit them back out again when called upon to do so. The Army’s  method of teaching:Tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; and tell them what you told them; made learning a breeze for me. I had spent most of my life memorizing speeches from play after play. I usually had it down by the time they reached the “tell them what you told them” part. So I felt it was going to be easy to get high marks here as long as I kept my military self highly polished and creased.

Many social events were built into the training especially for married couples. There were ten of us. All different with totally different agendas.

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