THERE YOU HAVE IT. Almost a year spent to become an infantry officer and I became something else. But, more importantly, America was beginning to become something else during that year. Inasmuch as I had fallen off the face of the planet – we had almost no contact with the “real” world while in training – I had not been there to see it happen.
The change in America was subtle during 1966 while I was away. The Civil Rights Act had been passed in 1964, but its affect was only beginning to be felt. The United States was getting ready to begin a massive deployment of troops to Vietnam – I was among those – but its impact had not yet been felt in America because most of that early troop buildup consisted of volunteers like me. Nancy Sinatra was singing "These Boots Were Made For Walking" and the Orioles won the World Series.
The Baltimore Orioles won the world series? I was eleven years old when the St Louis Browns moved to Baltimore and took the name of the official State bird. They resided in the cellar of the league standings every year thereafter, until I left. I was an Infantry Officer Candidate when the World Series rolled around that year and I asked if anyone knew who was playing. We didn't get much in the way of outside news. I thought they were joking when they told me the Orioles. I've felt like a jinx ever since. Was it my fault they never amounted to anything until the year I left Baltimore?
Even more changes would come to America in the following year while I was stationed in Vietnam, even more cut off from news of the “real” world. More change came during the following three years while I was stationed in Hawaii, almost as remote from the “real” world as Vietnam. I suppose this is why I escaped the change that seems to have characterized the national psyche ever since. I will reserve those observations for my weekly opinion piece each Sunday.
Beginning next week, I will share my journal of the events in Vietnam. I served thirteen months in the war zone as a member of the Adjutant General's office of the 9th Infantry Division. My position gave me a broader view of the war than I might have had as an infantry platoon leader. I was able to travel throughout our division's tactical area of operations and mingle with unit commanders. During the first couple of months of my tour of duty, I supervised the processing of battle casualties and corresponding with their next of kin. Later, I was assigned to help manage and then took over the Awards and Decorations Branch where I investigated and processed recommendations to cite acts of valor. I was a platoon leader for the division's base camp defense force. I was the division's duty officer the night that the Tet Offensive of 1968 began.
Guilt at surviving the war without facing the hazards of the infantrymen I had trained with drove me to take unnecessary risks. That guilt remains with me to this day.
My objective over the coming weeks is to document the war as I saw it, to rebut the propaganda that antiwar factions in the media and at home propagated - propaganda that has filtered its way into lesson plans throughout American schools. If America is to overcome and cast off its guilt and self-loathing, then its citizens must come to understand the true nature of our actions in Vietnam. I am especially concerned that those veterans who returned from Vietnam and cloaked themselves in guilt and self-loathing to disappear chameleon-like among the anti-war protestors, will find peace within themselves.
YOU PROBABLY WONDER what sort of an infantry officer I became after all this training. I didn't. I was commissioned into the Adjutant General's Corps. What's that, you ask? Don't feel badly. I didn't know either, until it was too late.
The Adjutant General's Corps (AGC) sounds impressive. The word “General” gives it a feeling of importance. It isn't. The AGC superintends all personnel functions in the Army. That's right. I went through all of that infantry training, almost a year's worth, to become a Rear Echelon Mother F**ker (REMF). I wore what was affectionately known as the “shield of shame.” And if that isn't depressing enough, we were also responsible for delivering the mail, marching the band, and operating post theaters and craft shops.
Okay, I'm being hard on myself. These were all important functions, especially delivering the mail. Mail was one of the greatest morale boosters to young men in combat far from home. Someone had to do it. Indeed, the vast majority of soldiers never see combat. They support the combat arms – Infantry, Artillery, and Armor – with everything they need to move, shoot, and communicate. Without these troops, the battle would be lost. However, it seems a waste of all that infantry training to post me to the rear to shuffle papers.
I suppose that I was chosen for service in the Adjutant General Corps because of my age and education. However, with a degree in law, posting to the Military Police would have made more sense, wouldn't it?
The full import of the assignment didn't hit me until I reported to, Colonel Bell, the G1 – the member of the general staff responsible for all administrative matters – for the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam. Opening my 201 (personnel) file, his eyes lit up when he saw my MOS (Military Occupational Skill) listed as 1542 – Platoon Leader. They were always short of qualified platoon leaders. However, his gaze dimmed when his sergeant leaned closer and pointed out that another MOS was listed: 2210 – Personnel Officer – and that I had been assigned to the division to serve in the Adjutant General's Office. He shrugged and ordered his sergeant to escort me to their offices. Although I served Colonel Bell well during my year in Vietnam (he often came to me bypassing the AG to get things done), I never forgot his disappointment that day.
Still worse is the sense of guilt that I bear to this day – survivor's guilt. My classmates went on to serve as infantry officers while I braved paper cuts on their behalf. I even had the horror of writing to one of their young wives to announce his death in combat. I met her when her husband came to tell me that our Tactical Officer wanted to see me at our graduation dance. He brought her to our room when he came with the summons.
We were marched to a classroom at 06:00 (6 a.m.) on the day of our graduation to be sworn in. We had been discharged from enlisted service the day before. Thus, we were civilians for twenty-four hours.
The father of one of my classmates was an Army colonel and he had the honor of swearing us in as second lieutenants. And to think, just the day before, many of us couldn't even spell “lieutenant.” The battalion sergeant-major saluted each of us as we exited the classroom. We returned the salute and handed him a dollar as is the custom with your first salute. The money was used for a party for the enlisted cadre who had supported us. Maybe we should have given more. A little less than half who began with us graduated.
Very few failed Officer Candidate School. The vast majority quit. Our tactical officers found our weakness – physical, emotional, or academic – and preyed on it during the entire six months trying to make us quit.
I still remember vividly running back to the barracks to get ready for the graduation ceremony after we were sworn in. My feet barely touched the ground for more than a mile. A note waited for me commanding my presence at the post finance office to square away a discrepancy in my records. I borrowed a Corvair from a classmate so that I could get there and back quickly.
When I got into the car after taking care of business at the finance office, I reached for the gear shift lever and it was missing. There was an automatic shifter on the dash. Strange. I could have sworn that it had a manual transmission. As I drove away, I saw another Corvair of the same color. I stopped and looked at it momentarily, then backed up, parked and locked the car I was driving. I discovered the other car had a manual transmission and the key worked. That's the one I drove back to the barracks.
Infantry Hall, Fort Benning, Georgia
The ceremony featured an audio visual production extolling the Infantry, Queen of Battle. We then stood and repeated the same oath of office that we had taken earlier, and then walked across the stage one at a time to collect our commissions. Later, my mother pinned on my new gold bars on my shoulders at the base of the Follow Me statue outside Infantry Hall. The irony didn't escape me as I was wearing the “shield of shame.”
Ultimately, I wasn't a very good "chairborne" ranger. I bridled at the posting, and made life miserable for my superiors who seemed quite content with their lot in the military. I sneaked away against orders to play infantry officer - or plain infantryman - whenever I could get away with it, and the Army was happy to release me from active duty when we began abandoning our commitment to a free Vietnam.
I HAD PLANNED to have my girlfriend come to Fort Benning for my graduation from Officer Candidate School. I even planned to propose. But, those plans went up in smoke when I received what was to be the first of her “Dear John” letters to me.
I can see your expression now. There was more than one Dear John from her? Yes. Why would he even admit to being that stupid? I'm a writer. Honesty is a job requirement. Did you learn from your mistake? No. I married her. Did it last? Do you really have to ask?
Graduation from OCS included a dance. A local organization arranged for “dates” for those of us without one, but I declined. I wasn't in the mood. I'm surprised they let me get away with it. It seems that it was just another teaching opportunity, to make “gentlemen” out of us.
All of my classmates who were assigned “dates” started a pool. Whoever had the ugliest girl won. That doesn't sound very “gentlemanly,” does it? Now don't jump all over me. Remember, I wasn't part of this. Have pity. I was heartbroken.
I was enjoying a rare quiet moment during the dance, alone reading, when my roommate arrived with a request from my tactical officer. His date wanted to meet me. She had been impressed by my artwork. So I had to get dressed up in my Class A uniform just to put in an appearance.
“Lieutenant Robb said that you shouldn't salute him,” my roommate warned.
He simply shrugged and went back to the dance while I got dressed.
You can probably imagine how the scene played out if you have been following this blog regularly, and you'd be wrong. I didn't salute. I started to. My hand started up while I kept my eyes on his and he scowled as he began to respond. Instead of saluting, I stopped myself when my forearm was waist high and reached as though we were going to shake hands. His scowl deepened and he responded. But, before he could grab my hand, I restarted the salute. He saluted while I scratched my head. His date was thoroughly confused.
We walked the halls together as she complimented my drawings. After the last one, I saluted and turned on my heel to return to my bunk. It was a small revenge for the torments he had inflicted upon us for six months.
ENLISTED MEN ARE issued uniforms. Officers buy their own. Our company commander in Officer Candidate School was a frugal man and suggested that we purchase cheap replacements for the uniforms that we were issued and turn them in when we were commissioned. We could then keep the good ones we were issued and save some money. All we needed was a tailor to sew the black strips on our sleeves and pants legs – that was the only difference between officer's and enlisted dress uniforms. Brass insignia took care of the rest. Inasmuch as a second lieutenant only earned $303 per month in those days, it was a welcome suggestion.
Uniform: $300 Worn just once for this photo
Unfortunately, a new captain took command of our training company close to graduation and he was appalled to learn that we hadn't ordered custom-tailored uniforms. Representatives from a uniform company arrived shortly thereafter and we lined up to have our measurements taken and our checks cashed. As I remember, we each spent almost $500 for new Class A (green) dress uniforms and Dress Blues (which I wore on only one occasion – to have a picture taken at home).
Of course, after my tour of duty in Vietnam, I was assigned to Hawaii where dress whites were the order of the day. Unless you were assigned to duty that required frequent social engagements, the dress whites were required only one day each year. On New Year's Day, officers were expected to visit the Commanding General's home. Inasmuch as he wasn't inclined to greet each of us personally, we were only required to leave a calling card in a small silver tray sitting on a table by the front door for this purpose. Only one officer was excused from this duty – the duty officer.
The Duty Officer represents the Commanding General at night and during holidays. Anything requiring immediate attention is referred to the DO who either defers it until normal duty hours or contacts the appropriate on-call officer. He may even perform some narrowly defined functions on behalf of the Commanding General. I always made sure that I was the duty officer on New Year's Day and thus saved the cost of buying a set of dress whites.
Commissioned officers received a stipend to pay for meals. I believe that it was about $27 per month in those days. We could eat our meals at the company mess hall if we turned it over to the mess sergeant each month. Otherwise, we were on our own. You can only imagine how far $27 went each month, even in those days.
Interestingly, we also had to pay for our meals when a patient in a military hospital. We had to pay for them for our dependents as well. Although there was no charge for medical care, I was billed approximately $8 when my first son was born at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii for the meals his mother ate while there. I had three children born in civilian hospitals in later years and was charged a bit more.
Free housing was provided for commissioned officers as well as enlisted men. Generally, it was adequate, although I had to wonder since I learned that Air Force officers forced to live on Army posts received a stipend for tolerating substandard accommodations.
The best deal was TDY (Temporary Duty) assignments. I was sent to Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana for six weeks following graduation from Officer Candidate School. When I arrived, there was just one room remaining available in the BOQ (Bachelor Officer's Quarters) and I excused myself just long enough for someone else to take it. I then joined up with three other new lieutenants and we rented an apartment in nearby Indianapolis for the six weeks. Given that we each received a housing allowance of about $150 per week, I not only paid my share, but also rented a car and had more than six hundred dollars left over to refill my savings account depleted from buying those damn uniforms.
EVERY BRANCH OF the military services has its elite members. In the United States Army, those are the Airborne Rangers. Inasmuch as both the Airborne and the Ranger schools were based at Fort Benning alongside Infantry Officer Candidate School, we were exposed to their influence and encouraged to seek admission to their ranks.
Ground training at Airborne School
One fateful day tryouts were announced for Airborne School and many of us signed up. The incentive? Coke and cookies were promised to all candidates who took the exam. We would kill for Coke and cookies by this time. Inasmuch as the “test” was just another physical – running, situps, pull ups, things we were doing every day – it didn't seem like much of a stretch.
We were interviewed by Airborne Instructors as we completed the mandatory exercises, and I knew something was wrong as soon as I approached the desk where a doleful looking master sergeant waited with my medical file open in front of him. “I'm sorry candidate,” he began, “but you aren't qualified for Airborne.”
Suddenly, I had a vision – no Coke and cookies for me. “Why?” I asked.
“It's your eyes,” he replied.
Screw the eyes, I wanted to scream. I wanted my Coke and cookies. Instead, I said, “But, I wanted to go Airborne. I want to kill!”
I almost brought tears to the old sergeant's eyes, and I began to hope that I would get my Coke and cookies after all.
Actually, I knew that I wasn't qualified for Airborne before I took the test. I had seen my medical file rubber stamped “Vision: Not Qualified Airborne” sometime earlier. I only took the test for the Coke and cookies. I suppose because of my age and, maybe, my education, I had already figured out that it was unnatural to jump out of an airplane with perfectly good landing gear.
But, I overplayed my hand. “We could request an exception,” the sergeant suggested. “They might grant it.”
Holy crap! He was going to get me into the Airborne School. I had to think fast. I put on a brave face. “No, Sergeant,” I replied with a deep sigh. “Thanks, but I'm RA (Regular Army) all the way and rules are rules. They must have a good reason and I wouldn't want to let my buddies down because of my eyes.”
I swear there were tears in his eyes, and I got my Coke and cookies.
Actually, I was interested in Ranger School. That was more to my liking. However, without Airborne training, there would be no chance of Ranger School.
We had visited the Ranger School during our classes to learn about them and their mission. We also had to run their obstacle course. It was nothing like ours.
We had to work for every meal in OCS. We had to queue up at the mess hall before every meal and do chin ups and ten pushups for every chin up that we fell short of the minimum. In time, this became to easy and we began running the obstacle course before meals in addition to the chin ups.
Our obstacle course included the kinds of things you may have seen in movies: Run-Dodge-And-Jump, climbing a cargo net, sliding down a slanted line, running over an A-frame, walking balance beams, swinging across a pond, climbing a wall, flipped over a rolling log, crawling under barbed wire, etc. When that got too easy, we ran it twice.
We were given a week's leave for Christmas towards the end of our course at OCS and I went skiing with friends. Impatient with the 45-minute wait for the chairlift, I walked up the mountain. OCS had really built up my endurance. Even so, the obstacle course at the Ranger School was a real challenge. In addition to the obstacles, the course was laid out over a couple miles of rugged terrain. So, we had to run up and down steep hills as well as negotiate the obstacles.
The first obstacle was a 6-foot wall. The challenge was that we had to vault over it while carrying our M-14 rifles with bayonets attached. We had never before run an obstacle course while carrying our weapons. It took a lot of coordination to clear that wall without stabbing yourself accidentally.
As we continued around the course we encountered dummies that we had to attack. They were constructed of 4x4 posts with sections of truck tires and heavy metal hinges. A Ranger Instructor was stationed at each shouting out the technique we were supposed to employ: Vertical Butt Stroke, Stab, Slash, Horizontal Butt Stroke. A Ranger Captain mocked me for not attacking with enough force when I attempted the Vertical Butt Stroke to the dummy's head, but I ignored him and ran on. When I arrived at the end of the course, I found our instructors waving us on. Run it again. Again? I could barely hold my arms up, let alone my weapon.
By the time I arrived back at the bayonet dummy with the captain shouting “Vertical Butt Stroke,” I was annoyed. I don't remember clearly what happened, but he followed me through the rest of the course cheering me on. When we got to the end he was describing what happened.
“He took the head clean off the damn thing!” he shouted.
I what? I looked at my right hand holding the remains of the butt end of my rifle. The stock was sheared away. My right forearm was bleeding from the fragmented end of the stock that had broken off and scrapped off skin through the uniform sleeve. All I remembered was that the dummy had become that captain.
The husband of one of my cousins died a few years ago. He had been an Airborne Ranger during World War II (I was the youngest child of youngest children, born during the War). He was wounded during the battle to capture Henderson Field in the Solomon Islands and was recuperating when his unit rescued the survivors of the Bataan Death March. I'm glad that I had that experience at the Ranger School so that I could truly appreciate just how great a hero he and his fellow Rangers really were.
Ultimately, I chose to make the main character in my novel an Airborne Ranger. Who else could have infiltrated the camps of both the Cuban Army and the Fidelistas to provide insight into the Revolution?
ESCAPE AND EVASION is a tactic employed by soldiers who have been separated from their units and find themselves trapped behind enemy lines. We practiced it in Advanced Infantry Training, moving at night along a two mile course while drill instructors threw flash-bangs at us. Most of us opted out and walked the road that bordered the training course from beginning to end. We had no such option in Officer Candidate School.
The E&E course in Officer Candidate School was twelve miles over rough terrain. An airborne infantry company was employed to prevent us from reaching sanctuary at the end. They received points for each one of us they caught, and a weekend pass awaited them if they accumulated enough points.
Using roads was a sure way of getting caught. They posted sentries equipped with starlight scopes that permitted them to see in the dark. Jeeps with blackout lights chased anyone foolish enough to stray onto a road.
We were broken up into groups of eight in the late afternoon. Each group was given a live chicken and rabbit to prepare and cook. It was our only meal that day. We were sent on our way when the sun set.
The “aggressor” force was supposed to stay at least a mile from our starting line. However, my group was jumped just a couple hundred yards after we began, and we scattered. I went to ground in the shadow cast by the moon, from a large tree. The aggressor stop inches from where I lay. I held my breath while he looked around, and jumped to my feet and ran when he advanced just a few steps beyond me. We weren't supposed to fight capture, but I wasn't going to submit easily.
We were told that captives were taken to a Prisoner of War (POW) camp to be “interrogated.” Boots were taken away and mild forms of torture were inflicted. I later learned that one man was thrown into a pit several times before he discovered the entrance to a tunnel there and used it to crawl past the barbed wire perimeter. He ran the rest of the course bare-footed.
After I was certain that I had lost the aggressor who had been pursuing me, I laid down on the ground and covered my head with my field jacket. I used my flashlight with a red lens (to preserve my night vision) and study the map we had been given. There were two checkpoints that we were required to find and stop at to earn full points for the test. I charted my course and was about to start when I heard a noise that sounded at first like a locomotive tearing through the forest. It was a patrol with a scout dog hot on my scent. I altered my plan and headed for the nearest swamp. They were going to have to get wet if they wanted to catch me.
Fortunately, it was December and I hoped that the snakes would be too lazy to chase me in that weather. I had seen some twelve foot long specimens of rattlesnakes in those swamps earlier in the year. When I reached the edge of the swamp I waded right in and didn't stop for more than a kilometer. I then sat on a fallen tree and studied my map to figure out where I was and how I would reach the first checkpoint.
I still remember that night vividly. It was cold and it was wet and I was shuffling my feet to scatter any snakes that had missed the fact that it was December. I stayed in the swamp until I reached a point that I calculated was the base of the hill on which the first checkpoint was supposed to be located. The woods were thick enough that I didn't see the drill instructor's fire until I was almost on top of it. He took my name and I turned back in the direction of the swamp. I would have lingered there for a while to warm myself by his fire, but time was important. We only had so much of it to complete the course for full credit.
I skirted the edge of the swamp between the first and second checkpoints. I wanted quick access to an escape route into the water if another scout dog picked up my trail. It was on this leg of the course that I had to cross a road. I laid down an observed it for several minutes before I decided that the faint glow I saw to my right might be a vehicle. I was correct. It came to life as I crawled across the road. I then jumped to my feet and ran to the forest on the opposite side as it raced towards me. I barely had time to dive into the underbrush and make good my escape before three or four men piled out of a jeep and began beating the bushes for me.
My circuitous route ate up a lot of my time reaching the second checkpoint. I decided to take a chance and head straight for the finish point after that. I figured that the aggressors probably had focused their attention between the starting line and the first checkpoint. I guess I was right.
I found a couple classmates at the second checkpoint and we took off as a group. We even used our flashlights to help find our way as quickly as possible through the tangle. A deuce-and-a-half (two and one half ton truck) waited at the finish point. They had large insulated serving containers with hot chicken and rice soup. I drank two bowls faster than I can write this sentence. When the truck was full, they took us back to our barracks.
Our classmates came straggling in all night while we slept. The next day we got to hear their gruesome stories, especially the ones from those who had been captured.
SOMEONE ONCE SAID “never trust a lieutenant with a compass or a captain with a rifle.” Neither is safe to be around. A battlefield is not a safe place to wander around lost, nor is it safe to have the man behind you shooting, and generally, that's where you'll find a captain -- behind you.
"Nothing is so good for the morale of the troops as occasionally to see a dead general." Field Marshall Slim
Once upon a time, military leaders actually “led” their men into battle. Even generals mounted their warhorses and rode in front of massed ranks of armed men marching at each other. However, modern American infantry tactics dictate that enlisted men lead the way while the officers lead from behind. This is not a matter of cowardice. Think about it. It's virtually impossible to monitor your forces and correct their maneuvers and actions when they are behind you unless, of course, you have eyes in the back of your head. However, at the time I was in Officer Candidate School, we learned that Israeli lieutenants led their men into battle – literally, they led them. Of course, their platoons used an entirely different set of assault tactics.
An American infantry platoon in the assault advances to the “line of departure” in a file formation, then spreads out in a single rank parallel to the enemy. After artillery and airstrikes “soften” the enemy defenses, the platoon advances in one parallel rank towards the enemy's line of defense with the platoon leader following behind to observe the action and make adjustments to take advantage in weak points or fill in when his men fall.
Israeli infantry advancing in single file
We learned that the Israeli's infantry advanced in a single file all the way to the enemy line with the platoon leader in front. Their goal was to pierce the enemy defenses – to create a hole in them. Each side of the break would then become an unprotected flank that the platoon could attack, spreading out to make the hole larger until the defense crumbled. Whereas an American infantry lieutenant had the life expectancy of a housefly, I can only imagine that his Israeli counterpart must have survived as long as the flame of a match in a hurricane.
Regardless of the tactics and strategies employed, infantry units need someone who knows where they are and how to get where they need to go. It's also important so they can accurately direct fire from artillery and air forces, or request resupply or medical evacuation. Thus, we spent a lot of time in OCS learning Land Navigation. Fortunately for me, I was a experienced navigator and had won several competitions testing my skills navigating at sea. Navigating on the land is very similar. It requires only one additional skill: The ability to interpret contour lines on a flat map and see a three-dimensional view of hills, mountains, gullys, canyons, and ridges. Of course, I ended up in the Mekong Delta where there wasn't a contour in sight.
We worked in teams during our early lessons but, before we graduated, we were working individually. We wouldn't be able to navigate by committee once we were leading a platoon in combat.
We learned how to interpret aerial reconnaissance photos as well as how to read maps. Much of the world, even today, has not been accurately mapped. We learned how to use a compass and orient a map. Once a map or photo is aligned with the land (north on the map faces true north) all the features on the map or photo will be arranged around you exactly as they appear on the map.
Orienting a map
We practiced both at night and during the day, finding our way from one point to another. The finish line was marked by a series of numbered posts about the diameter of telephone poles sticking up about waist high. The trainers noted the number of the post where you crossed the line after following directions, circumventing obstacles, and crossing uneven terrain. You were graded on how closely you arrived at the post where you were supposed to arrive.
I must have done well. They wanted me to remain at the Infantry School after graduation to teach Land Navigation. It didn't hurt that I once astonished the instructors when I proved that they could accurately determine their location with the aid of only one point of reference. They had been taught that you needed two and by taking a bearing with your compass on each, you would find your location on the map where the two bearings crossed. I showed them how to take a bearing on an object, move to another location and take a second bearing. It was simple then to draw a third line on the map showing the direction and distance you had moved. The three lines formed a triangle. At one corner was the object you had sighted. The other two corners represented you location: One where you had been when you took the first bearing, and the second where you now were.
Unfortunately for the Infantry School and the Land Navigation program, my orders to report in Vietnam didn't allow time for me to stay there and teach.
I remembered all these lessons and experiences as I wrote Rebels on the Mountain. I cannot imagine that Castro had access to maps or aerial photos of the Oriente Province where he fought most of his revolution. However, his lieutenants, especially Celia Sanchez, recruited from the outcasts and outlaws who lived there. These men and women must have brought invaluable local knowledge with them that helped the Fidelistas navigate the countryside.
CLOSE COMBAT TRAINING was elevated to a whole new level in Officer Candidate School when the sheaths were removed from the bayonets. “Don't complain to mama or your Congressman,” the sergeant warned us. “If you don't like what we're doing here you're more than welcome to quit.”
The truth is that more than half of all officer candidates quit before completing the six-month course. The tactical officers were scrutinizing us for weaknesses from the moment we arrived at Fort Benning. They were going to break us anyway they could. Physically. Emotionally. Academically. They would find our weakness and pick at it like a sore until we broke. Very few of us were thrown out.
There wasn't any penalty for quitting. Most of us had been promoted from Private E-1 or E-2 to Sergeant E-5 just for being accepted to OCS. We were allowed to keep that rank if we quit.
It's hard to know how anyone will react under combat. I had seen a few men break at the reception center at Fort Jackson when we were only asked to tolerate long lines and tedious forms. I had seen a few more break under the rigors of Basic Combat Training and Advanced Infantry Training. Better that they collapse there than on the battlefield when their comrades were depending on them. How much worse if a leader broke during combat? How much worse if the stress caused him to make even a simple mistake that would cost men's lives?
So, there I stood in a sawdust pit, my feet spread shoulder-width apart and my hands at my side. Another candidate stood opposite to me holding his M-14 pointed directly at my neck, the tip of his bare bayonet just four inches from my windpipe. The sergeant's disembodied voice reached me through a fog. I had eyes only for the eyes of my opponent. He was sweating. He was just as afraid as I.
“Thrust whenever you're ready!” the sergeant commanded.
My opponent whispered, “Are you ready?”
I hesitated. “Yes, but go slow,” I said.
“I'll go real slow,” he replied. “On three.”
“When you say three?”
“I'll say three... and then go.”
“Okay. One. Two. Three.”
I stepped back just as we had been instructed. I brought up my hand, the one nearest to my opponent, and guided his bayonet past my throat. I grabbed his rifle barrel behind the bayonet mount with the other hand and pulled, dragging him into the elbow that I aimed at his nose bridge. It struck.
“Damn!” he shouted, dropping his rifle and grabbing his nose. Blood flooded freely. “You weren't supposed to hit me,” he complained.
“Well, you weren't supposed to thrust that fast,” I defended myself.
“That wasn't fast.”
“I barely moved.”
“No, I'll show you how fast it was,” I retorted. It was now my turn to thrust the bayonet at his throat and I may have thrust it a little faster than he had thrust it at me.
Before we were done, someone might have suspected that we were attempting to kill each other, but couldn't. Damn, we were good.
We trained equally hard in hand-to-hand combat. We trained until it became reflexive. There were no real defensive moves. Just offensive, killing moves. There is no time to waste with parrying on the battlefield.
Although our skills increased, we still respected our teachers. I remember clearly one day, an officer candidate was invited to help one of the training sergeant's with a demonstration. He was handed an M-14 with a bare bayonet attached. He asked what the sergeant wanted him to do. The sergeant replied, “Do whatever you want.”
The candidate threw the weapon out of the sawdust pit.
“Why'd you do that?” the instructor asked him.
The candidate replied honestly. “I'm getting rid of that thing before you take it away and kill me with it.”
Again, I thought back to those lessons as I wrote about Fidel Castro's revolution in Cuba. His men didn't have military-style weapons until they began stealing them from Cuban army outposts that they overran. The weapons that they brought with them were mostly sporting rifles and didn't have bayonet mounts. I'm sure some brought the knives they used to harvest sugarcane – heavy bladed machete-like knives with hooked ends. During the Cuban Revolution of the late 19th Century, Spanish soldiers feared the masses of peasants who survived their volleys and rushed to kill them with their cane knives.
I cannot find any record of rebels during Castro's revolution engaging in close combat with the dictator's army. They usually fought at a distance, much more like snipers than as infantrymen. They didn't close until enemy soldiers surrendered, and it was Castro's policy to treat their prisoners with compassion. Indeed, many were recaptured on multiple occasions, surrendering more easily each time knowing that they would be well-treated.
THE ARMY PROVIDED a well balanced diet from the four principal food groups: Meats, vegetables, cereals, and dairy. Officer candidates provided for themselves from the fifth: Pogey Bait.
If it didn't come from the mess hall, we weren't allowed to eat it. Simple. No questions. In fact, we had to eat it just the way they served it. I once had to stand on a chair in the mess hall and sing “Take me out the ball game...” because I had the temerity to place a hot dog onto the bun that was served alongside of it.
In the beginning, we went along with it. However, as we became comfortable with the rules, we began to break them. Our first attempt was a disaster.
One night, we ordered pizza. Two of our platoon met the pizza delivery guy at a water tower near our barracks. They took our money and a clean garbage can to carry the pizza back into the barracks. I don't know how they knew, but our Tactical Officer and the company's Executive Officer walked in before we could take our first bites. They had us carry the pizzas into the latrine and leave them until we were called back. When we returned, we found the pizzas on the floor of the shower room. The cold water was pouring full blast from every shower head, and we were told it was time to eat our pizza. All of it. It was nasty.
Our mail was sacrosanct and our families and friends sent us small treats occasionally. After a few weeks, we were ordered to open any packages that we received with a tactical officer present. If it contained contraband food, it was confiscated. However, we were allowed to keep “special items” that were sent on special occasions. When one of our platoon had a birthday, we all wrote to our families and friends telling them to send treats addressed to that person.
On the date of his birthday, our Tactical Officer called us to his office after training. A stack of parcels covered one wall, waist deep. He had us carry it all to our platoon area in the barracks and then told us to wait in the latrine. When he called us back, we found that he had opened every box and dumped its contents throughout every room and hallway. We were given fifteen minutes to eat all that we could and told to clean up the rest.
We didn't have a successful “pogey-party” until our eighteenth week in Officer Candidate School. Almost half of our number had quit by that time, but those who remained understood tactics far better. We ordered pizza and took delivery just as we had on the first attempt. However, we created a diversion to distract the officer on duty while we sneaked the food inside. We prepared hiding places and posted sentries to warn us of anyone approaching so that we could secret the food without being caught. We had all the windows open to vent the aroma. We enjoyed our pizza without being caught. We were ready to lead men in combat.
AN INFANTRY OFFICER not only has to know his weapons, but also the weapons that his enemy uses. Inasmuch as the Viet Cong were equipped with surplus weapons from every war, officer candidates had the chance to practice with some real antiques. (When I got to Vietnam, I saw even more that I had only read about or seen in old war movies including the .45 caliber Burp Gun, the British Sten Gun, and others.)
Captured Viet Cong weapons
We also had to learn the weapons then popular with Communist forces, most notably the famous Kalashnikov assault rifle – AK47. Interestingly, weapons design seemed to reflect much on the attitude towards the infantryman. The Americans adopted the 5.56X45mm caliber ammunition and a lighter assault rifle so that infantrymen could carry more firepower with less effort. The Communists continued to load their infantrymen down with the much heavier AK-47 and its much heavier 7.62X39mm caliber ammunition, and expected them to carry it without complaint. Although some may argue over the relative ballistic merits of the two calibers, it isn't particularly pleasant to be shot by either.
More importantly, the early versions of the American M-16 suffered from issues that had little to do with its caliber. The early flash suppressor shaped like a three-pronged fork easily caught on jungle vines. Overpowering the ammunition to give it power comparable to the larger caliber M-14 that it replaced as well as the Communist weapons, caused frequent jams during fire fights. These defects were corrected in time, but not until many infantrymen suffered the consequences. Many of the dead were found with their rifles disassembled where they had been attempting to repair them in the midst of fighting. The Communist-manufactured weapons were simple, durable, and reliable. Of course, they had to be. Men who had grown up in more primitive environments didn't have the mechanical knowledge or experience to perform complex maintenance on complex weapons systems. Most Americans were expected to adapt more readily. None of us even had the chance to touch an M-16 until issued one on arrival in Vietnam. We trained on the M-14.
I missed the M-14. I loved that weapon. It packed a real punch and had a much greater effective range. However, as I was to learn later in Vietnam, most fire fights occur at short range and carrying a heavy rifle and an even heavier load of ammunition in the heat and humidity of Vietnam was not pleasant.
One of the more interesting features of the Communist weapons were their lack of safety considerations. This was particularly evident in their sidearms, Whereas the standard American-issued Colt .45 Model 1911 semiautomatic pistol was equipped with three safety mechanisms – half cock, slide safety, and grip safety – the Soviet 9mm sidearm didn't have any.
As surprising as this may seem to those who have never served as an infantryman, gun safety is important, even on the battlefield. It was Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to clear all weapons when returning to base camps from a combat patrol. I moved to the head of the line when we approached our perimeter and inspected each man's weapons as he passed. He had to show me that it was unloaded, the breech was empty, and then dry fire his weapon pointing in the air. Also, there was a sand-filled bucket outside every building and tent where every soldier was expected to dry fire his weapon before entering. These SOPs were ingrained into us during our training.
Weapons design also influenced infantry tactics when using them. For example, most Communist combat rifles had bayonets permanently attached. We carried ours in sheaths and attached them to the ends of our infantry rifles whenever we expected to engage in close combat. Ours could have sharp edges and theirs couldn't. Thus, we could employ slashing motions with our bayonets at the end of our rifles and they could only stab with theirs.
We also had to learn the effective range and rate of fire for all weapons that we employed as well as our enemy's. Even more importantly, we had to learn how to maintain fire discipline among our men. We heard tales that many fired their entire basic load when the came under fire, and had nothing left to defend themselves when the enemy rushed their position.
Inasmuch as I trained as an infantry officer early in the Vietnam War, we didn't have many trainers with experience from that theater of operations. During our time at the Infantry School, we watched training films produced by Nazi's who had escaped Europe following World War II and hired themselves out to fight insurrections in other parts of the world, such as the Philippines. We received Vietnam-specific training in dribbles based on early intelligence reports of Viet Cong tactics. Of course, after Tet, when the Viet Cong had been decimated and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) began to prosecute the war, I'm sure they had to change the training to adapt to new tactics. I left Vietnam before the NVA had infiltrated as far south as my tactical area of operations in the Mekong Delta. Indeed, the first rocket attack on Saigon occurred the night I left the country. But, that's another story...