In the units that I was with I saw a cross
section of the entire country. We represented everyone from schoolteachers to
gang bangers. We came from the north, east, south, and west, with backgrounds
as different as night and day. But, the things we had in common far outweighed
our differences. None of us wanted to be in Vietnam. None of us gave a damn
about the local politics, or who was in control of a place half way round the
world. We all missed cold beer, family, old friends, and women who could
actually carry on a conversation ("Hay GI, suckie, fuckie, mighty fine boom
boom" didn’t count).
Even the meatheads and the ass holes became my
brothers. We tolerated one another, cared for one another, shared our
loneliness, and kept one another going.
My best buddy was a Texan named Waylen Powell,
the most unmilitary soldier who ever lived. He had a rare gift for getting
next to people, some he made laugh, some he made furious; but no one ever
ignored him. He made me laugh when there was absolutely nothing to laugh
about. He forced me to justify things that I had taken for granted all of my
life. I'm a better man for having been his friend. He was killed on July 4th,
Waylen was average height, weight, and build
with no outstanding physical characteristics except his smile. It was always
there; and it said that he knew something that no one else knew, like he was
keeping a secret that was his alone.
He seldom talked about home, but neither did
I. That part of our lives was too precious, and too far away from the shit
hole where we found ourselves in 1967. We stayed in the present, and kept the
conversations focused on whatever bullshit that made us laugh.
We were on a smoke break, in one of those
bullshit sessions when a satchel charge came flying through the air and landed
in the trench where we were standing. Just before it exploded I hollered
“Incoming”, and dove toward to road. The explosion threw me across the road
and into the brush. When I came to my senses the entire top of the hill was
alive with small arms and automatic weapons fire in all directions.
I found my best buddies body the next morning.
Even though there was nothing I could have done to save him, I’ll always feel
that I left my best friend behind.
Waylen and I were assigned to different units
when we got to Vietnam, and hadn't seen one another for a couple of months. We
hooked up at our base camp in DaNang for a three day, in-country, R&R (Rest
and Recuperation), and immediately headed for China Beach where we mixed a
little body surfing with lots of beer. I remember the surfing because it
tended to sober me up. Everything else about the three days was a little hazy.
I was born and raised in Illinois; and the
closest I'd come to surfing was listening to the Beach Boys. I worked my butt
off trying to out surf Waylen; and if I had been sober I'd have probably
killed myself. I was amazed at how quickly he picked it up. But, he was an
amazing guy. By the end of the day there were dozens of guys in the water
competing with one another for style and distance, and he organized the whole
thing just for laughs.
I later figured out that our rotation back to
base camp at the same time was arranged to make it easier to transfer Waylen
into my section. He had raised so much hell in his own section that they
decided to assign him to me.
He was a lousy soldier. He questioned every
order he was given, made up his own mind about everything, and if it didn't
make sense, he wouldn’t do it. He was no easier on me than any other NCO
(sergeant) that he had been assigned to. The first night back in the field he
asked why in the hell were we going to be up all night when the rest of the
ass holes in the platoon were going to get at least a few hours sleep? I said
that: first, we were in charge of night perimeter defense, second, if we're
going to be hit it would be at night, third, when it happens I'd rather be
awake, and fourth, if someone was going to be responsible for my fucking
throat being cut or my head being blown off, I’d prefer it was me.
That was the last time he questioned why we
were awake while the other guys were sleeping. You see, Waylen was a lousy
soldier, but a very good man. What I said made sense, and he accepted it
because it did. He didn’t do things because the army said so, or because I
said so. He governed his actions by what his heart told him was correct. He
was honest with himself, and with others. He accepted responsibility when it
was his to accept.
The things I learned because of my friendship
with Waylen Powell have stayed with me all these years. He didn’t give his
respect to anyone. It had to be earned with honesty and courage. I wish that
more people could have known him the way I did. It’s been over thirty years,
and I still miss him.
Joe McCurry was a little bit of every guy I’d
ever met. He was burgers and fries, and cold beer after the game. Having him
around was like being close to a piece of home.
He was slender, built like a shortstop (a
baseball player who is very quick and agile). He kept his hair cut very short
when long hair was the style. He seemed to fit in no mater who he was with.
He was transferred to me when two of my guys
were re-assigned to another section. The army shuffled people from time to
time, trying to improve units that had problems.
Joe didn’t complain about being in the field.
In fact, he liked the change from the “regular army” style of life that
existed in base camp. He never considered the extra risks that came from being
in the bush. Very few guys did until they were hit or were close to someone
who was. The first time Joe saw serious action was the night he was killed.
He and Arnold Palmer were assigned to man our
only search light on the night we were overrun. They were scheduled for sunset
to midnight. Powell and I planned to take midnight to sunup. We normally had
two lights and a thirty-caliber machine gun manned all night long. So, there
was never a time when we weren’t watching the perimeter. But, on July 4th
one of the lights was out of action, something that seldom happened.
The machine gun was always set up at the
landing zone position because there were fewer Marines there. We wanted our
gun to beef up firepower at our weakest point.
We varied the intervals of the illumination
missions (the times that the lights were on). We also mixed white light with
infrared (light that we could see through special binoculars, but no one else
Joe and Arnold ran their last mission between
11:30 and 11:45. They went to their bunker after the mission, but before
Powell and I relieved them. That was a big mistake because it was the exact
time that we were hit. I didn’t tell them to wait for us, but I shouldn’t have
to. They knew better. They were both very good men who simply made a mistake.
Powell and I were in the trench line within
fifty feet of the light and bunker. I’m sure Joe and Arnold saw us there and
thought we had them covered. The Vietnamese who threw the satchel charge at us
had to walk past the searchlight. The mistake and some incredible luck allowed
him to walk right up on us.
The edge of the landing zone where the light
was located was at the top of a steep ridge. It was less than one hundred feet
to the edge of the jungle that dropped away from our position. Even if both
lights had been manned that night we still would have been overrun. The only
thing that could have made a difference was a wide kill zone that the
Vietnamese would have had to cross in order to get to us. It would have
allowed us to use our firepower. We were so badly outnumbered, and they were
on us so fast that Joe and Arnold never had a chance.
Arnold Palmer was with us from the time we
left the states. He was one of the most single-minded guys I’ve ever met. All
he talked about was home. All he was interested in was back home. All he cared
about was back home. He never talked about baseball, football, basketball, or
women. He didn’t even bitch about the army, the rain, or the 25-year-old
c-rations that we lived on for months at a time. And, in the army, bitching is
He just wanted to go home. Everything he hoped
for, dreamed about, or wanted for the rest of his life was right there. He
found paradise; and was just trying to live long enough to get back to it.
It’s a tragedy that he never spent another day in the paradise he found.
The two guys who were transferred out of my
section, Ertus Ford and Pete Terronus, were as good as they came. Both were
confident, dependable, and hard working. They made running the section easy;
and, at the same time, taught me lessons that have served me well for over 30
years. The most important of these was trust, when to give it and how to gain
My section was one of the best in the unit,
and it was because I had the best guys. I guess the Army decided that I should
share the wealth.
There was no way for a section leader, platoon
sergeant, or anyone responsible for the actions of others to be everywhere and
see everything. Therefore, there was no choice but to trust my men. The key
was to be as hard working as my hardest working subordinate, to be as
interested in them as I hoped they were in me, to care enough about them that
they knew they could depend on me. It was essential to be on top of our
situation. Each detail was important because if it effected my people, it also
It was not necessary to be the strongest,
smartest, or toughest, but, it was essential to jump in and give it my best
shot. Pete Terronus was a very tough, hard-nosed Latino who was used to hard
work. There was no way that I could fill sandbags as fast or stack them as
precisely as Pete, but it was essential to be next to him, sweating the entire
time that he did.
Ertus Ford was a schoolteacher. He was not
only intelligent, and well educated, but he could think on his feet, and was
extremely street smart. I didn’t even have to let Ford know what was needed.
By the time I told him he had already taken care of it. I simply needed to
communicate with him regularly so that everyone was on the same page. I needed
to know what the company commanders, platoon leaders, and battery commanders
were planning, and make sure that we were in the right place at the right time
so that we didn’t have to do things twice. My guys took care of the rest.
The pit fall in the situation that I just
described was to become complacent and lazy, to assume that things would be
taken care of because my people were capable. That was where honesty and hard
work came in. A good leader had be involved enough to know what was going on
without getting in the way of those doing the work.
My guys taught me that the key element was
honesty. Without it, good working relationships were impossible. Actions that
could have been considered manipulative and userous were very appropriate as
long as the motives that cause them were not self-serving. A leader that did
not manipulate conditions within his sphere of influence would find it hard to
be effective. However, he had to keep his own interests in the correct
In the beginning my relationship with Ford was
difficult. I was transferred into the battery where he had been serving just
before we shipped out. He was in line to take over his section, and should
have because of his unusually high qualifications. But, because the army was
the army and because I had time in grade, the section leader job was given to
me. He didn’t go out of his way to make things tough, but he certainly didn’t
cut me any slack. He expected me to do the job that I had been given from the
moment I took over. He forced me to be sharp at all times; and, in a combat
zone, that was a good way to do business. To this day, I’m at my best when the
pressure is on.
Without a doubt the most colorful guy in the
unit was sp5 Witkus. I never knew his first name, and never heard him called
anything but Witkus. He had the body of an NFL linebacker, and the face of a
Mafia enforcer. He was a career soldier whose ability to get into and out of
trouble was only overshadowed by his ability to get things done.
I got a call from him on the radio one day
asking what I wanted him to do with the truckload of cold beer. At the time we
were on a hilltop, miles from anywhere. Because I thought he was kidding I
told him to bring it up so that I could sit in it for a while. Within an hour
he rounded the switchback that led to our L.Z. driving a ¾ ton truck full of
ice and beer. In all of my beer drinking days I never had a better tasting
After my position was overrun I was sent back
to base camp in DaNang to get patched up and re-supplied. One afternoon Witkus
asked if I wanted to go into town. I jumped at the chance to break up the
routine of base camp. One of our stops included taking the child that I talked
about earlier to an aid station for treatment of a head wound. After his
errands were finished we stopped for a beer. After the beer we stopped for a
couple of drinks. Because one good drink deserves another, we stopped for a
Sometime long after dark we stumbled out of a
local shit hole, and headed for the truck that was actually classified as
stolen because he didn’t get authorization to take it before we left. He
stopped in the middle of the lot where the truck was parked, turned and looked
at me with those Mafia enforcer eyes, and asked if I thought I could kick his
ass before he kicked mine. I thought about it for a second, and said that it
really made no difference because by the time it was over I’d make his face
look like ground beef. So, no one would be sure of the outcome anyway. He
thought about it for a second, and began to laugh. It started in his toes and
went all the way up his body. It was one of those infectious laughs that you
just can’t ignore. The longer it went on the funnier that it was. As drunk as
we were, neither of us would have felt the effects of the fight until the next
We got back to base camp sometime before dawn.
The C.Q. (Charge of Quarters) was waiting for us and woke First Sergeant
Brown. He began screaming before he was close enough for me to actually see
his face. I was in that half way zone between drunk and hung over. I remember
that I couldn’t understand much of what he was saying, but the overall meaning
was crystal clear. I was an army sergeant acting like a dumb kid, willing to
get my head blown off or my throat cut for a few drinks. The word fool kept
hitting me like a slap in the face, and he used it over and over again.
I’d been chewed out before, but never better
than by Sergeant Brown. He knew how to make the words stick; and the “crusty
old bastard” drove the point home. It was the last time I took a drink while I
was in country.
My second best ass chewing came at the hands
of a Gunnery Sergeant at the firebase at An Hoa. He called me in to tell me
that I would no longer be allowed to use our jeeps to make our regular chow
runs (going to get something to eat). He thought it was bad for moral because
not everyone got to ride.
I explained to him that we gave rides to as
many guys as we could fit on the jeeps; and it was better to run the vehicles
up and down the road, rather than letting them sit in the same positions for
long periods of time. I was being honest about the whole thing. I really felt
that it was better to use them whenever we could.
He cut me off, and said that he’d made up his
mind, and that was that. I cut him off, and said that those were U.S. Army
jeeps, not Marine Corps. I then reminded him that they were my responsibility
and, as such, I’d decide how they were used. I finished up by saying that I
really couldn’t help it if he had a fucking morale problem.
I’ll never forget the look on his face.
Obviously, no other E-5 sergeant had ever talked to him that way. His face
turned a color that I’d never seen before. The veins in his neck not only
began to bulge, but I could actually see them throb. I missed part of what he
said because those throbbing veins fascinated me. The one thing that struck
home was the fact that he was going to call First Sergeant Brown about the
problem. I really didn’t want another session with the champion of the ass
Never the less, I held my ground, and
continued to use the jeeps. Apparently, Sergeant Brown agreed with me because
I never heard any more about jeeps.
WAYLEN AND THE KIDS AT THE RIVER
This is the way I’ll remember him. He had a
way of touching everyone he met. He was a very special man.
WAITING TO CROSS THE RIVER
ON THE WAY TO NONG SON
It was a one way trip for most of us.
HE’S HOLDING A LIZARD. IT WAS HIS PRIDE AND
ON CONVOY IN THE MOUNTAINS
There were two kinds of roads, muddy and
dusty. The same road could be either depending on the weather.
PETE AND ME FILLING SAND BAGS
If we weren’t digging we were filling.
JOE TAKING A BREAK OUTSIDE THE
He’s sitting on the spot where Pete killed the
Bamboo Viper (a very deadly snake). It was living in the bunker when we moved
FORD WITH HIS OWN SECTION AT THE
No man ever deserved a promotion more.
Continued next week