Dick Arnold's

TALL TALES

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INTRODUCTORY NOTE AND TALL TALE #1

Reflecting that it now has been 30 years since I was involved in that glorious mission to save half the world's rice for democracy, I thought I would send out a note now and then about my Army service. I entered the service in November of 1966 and took Basic at Fort Knox, KY. I have always believed that one redeeming result of military service is that you are exposed at a young age to a true cross-section of America—the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Two soldiers still stick in my mind from Basic. One was a black kid from Chicago's southside. He was sharp, charismatic, and hard-as-nails; he also claimed to be a mostly-reformed gang leader. About halfway through Basic we were given a course in enemy tactics in Vietnam. One of the VC's favorite was the "U-shaped ambush"—letting an enemy unit get well in towards the bend of the U, then hitting them from three sides. Anyhow, at smoke break this same kid came up to me and says, "So that is what an U-shaped ambush is. Hell Arnold, I've sprung lots of those in dead-end alleys back in Chicago!"

Also met twin brothers from Clearwater, FL. Now even back then I enjoyed talking to folks about their hometown, their upbringing, schools, etc. Well, one day these two were regaling me on the merits of Clearwater—the beaches, the girls, etc. Finally, one of them looked me square in the eye and said, "Why yes, the air and the water are so clear that you can usually see Texas across the Gulf!" A week later this same twin became depressed and tried to end it all—he went across the street into some woods and cut his wrists. He then got scared when he saw the blood and ran screaming back into the barracks. He survived but the Army let him out on a Section 8, his brother hung in there and finished Basic, though I lost track of him later.

TALL TALE #2: "DOES ANYONE HERE KNOW WHAT A #7 COOKING POT IS?"

Nearly all veterans have their KP stories and I am no exception. The duty roster for KP always went by alphabetical order so every duty station I went to I was always first-up. True to form, my second day in basic training I had KP. Now, all tasks of KP were not created equal; there were DRO (Dining Room Orderly), Outside Man (which was the best when the weather was good), regular KP (where you peeled the potatoes and served the food), and something called "Pot and Pan Man" or "Back Sink Man"(washing the very large pots and pans used for cooking). Not knowing any better and wanting to avoid peeling spuds, I volunteered for "Pot and Pan Man."

Now, being exposed to serious country-cookin' women on both sides of the family, I was used to seeing large cooking containers. However, nothing prepared me for what I was about to experience. The cookingware pieces were absolutely HUGE and were a struggle to man-handle into the sink and wash. You would just get through cleaning-up from one meal when the cooks would start grabbing them for the next one.

Anyhow, at about 2:00 in the afternoon the mess sergeant came back and said, "Give me a #7 pot." Now veterans from my era will tell you that with few exceptions, all supply and mess sergeants were alcoholics. This diminutive Puerto Rican staring at me with a baleful eye met that prerequisite, in addition to being mean as a snake. I had not the foggiest notion what a #7 pot was and told him so in the best militarily-correct language I could muster. At that, he flew into a rage screaming "G-- D-----, where does the Army find these idiots they are sending me?", reached into my clean stack (by now about eight feet high), and jerked out his #7 pot sending pots and pans cascading down on me, the sink, and the floor. After which of course he made me wash everyone single one over again.

The upside of this is now I am at ease whether I am talking to a PFC, General, or VIP because after you have had a short, drunk, mess sergeant screaming at you over his precious "G-- D--- #7 pot" every other discussion is a piece of cake.

TALL TALE #3: "THEY CAN'T ABIDE URINE-THROWERS IN TENNESSEE"

After returning from Vietnam in May '68, I had six months of active service left. I enjoyed a 30-day leave and then reported to Fort Hood, Texas. Fort Hood is located about halfway between Waco and Austin. This part of central Texas is hot, dusty, devoid of any redeeming features that I could see, and made one wonder why anyone would have died at the Alamo arguing over it. The battalion I was assigned to was about three-fourths Vietnam infantry veterans; I honestly believe the Army wasn't sure what to do with us, as they assigned us to an armor unit which few of us knew anything about.

Now our 30-days' leave was a good decompression tool; though honestly some of the guys were still a bit pressurized from the Vietnam experience. At any rate, we certainly were not good garrison troops; we bent if not broke every rule we could; were generally irreverent; and certainly were major pains-in-the-butt for the brass.

My friend Sgt. Huff was a good example. A draftee like myself and in the Army less then two years, he was staff sergeant E-6 due to stellar leadership qualities in Vietnam. He even was our acting platoon sergeant for awhile which would eventually lead to his downfall. Killeen was the small town right outside Ford Hood and was typical of such towns near Army bases; every other business was a laundry or a pawnshop and everyone was itching to take a poor GI's money. One bright Texas morning several of us, including Sgt. Huff, returned from a night of debauchery where the drink had flowed freely—just in time for reveille. Traditionally at reveille an officer would stand in front and each platoon would report to him; customary replies being "all present and accounted for sir," or some militarily acceptable explanation if anyone was missing. When it came his turn on this memorable morning, Sgt. Huff uttered the following immortal phrase: "One in Killeen, one in the latrine, and one I ain't never seen!" Shortly thereafter E-6 Huff became E-5 Huff.

Toward the end of the summer some bright person in Washington came up with a brilliant idea—why don't we use these bored, energetic veterans for riot control? In the turmoil after Dr. King's assassination there had been several race riots that summer and the antiwar demonstrators were beginning to be active. Most localities either used the police or National Guard with uneven results; the police were too aggressive (witness the '68 National Democratic Convention at Chicago) and the Guard were not sure how to react (witness Kent State). The logic with us was here are a bunch of guys used to handling weapons in tense situations; they are veterans and if they beat-up a bunch of bearded college kids who would complain? The only problem I could see was, yes we were used to being in stressful situations, but we often relieved that stress by quickly pulling the trigger and I wasn't sure that was what the country needed.

Anyhow, the Pentagon sent out a one-star general to canvass the troops and see if it was feasible. When he came to Fort Hood, they herded us all into the Post Gym to hear his spiel. He started off with the usual duty, honor, country stuff and then got to the brass tacks; "Now men, you would have to show restraint in these situations. The rioters (demonstrators were more accurate but anything over five people was a riot in LBJ's eyes) will try to taunt you and some even throw bags of human feces or urine at you." At that point a strapping, good-old-boy from the hills of Tennessee slowly raised his hand, "General, sir, if any of them-thar rioters throw a bag of piss at me I'm going to kill the sum-bitch." The general looked at him intently for a few seconds, then said, "Thank you for your frank comments soldier. ATTENHUT! Dismissed!"

Folks, that was last we heard about riot control!

TALL TALE #4: "IN THE REAR WITH THE GEAR,

THE SGT. MAJOR, AND THE BEER"

(Author’s note: I do not want anyone to take exception to my use of "REMF" This is especially true of any Arty/TOC readers. Truly, we all were a team—it took everyone pulling in the same direction. However, with the infantry’s warrior spirit at the point of the spear—it was very easy to relieve stress by poking fun at anyone who was not a Grunt. Plus, these writings were originally aimed at a civilian audience where I work……………Sincerely, Dick.)

A major misconception with regards to Vietnam is that everyone who served there saw some "action." Not so. In fact, the vast majority probably never heard a shot fired in anger (unfortunately, some of the most outrageous war stories heard in bars, VFW's, and American Legions will come from these types). In a war without any real front-lines, no place was truly safe, but clearly some places were much safer than others.

Because we chose to fight the war with all the high-tech gadgetry and logistical support our industrial might could churn-out, it was inevitable that it would take a lot of guys in the rear to support one grunt in the field. The ratio was about 7:1. That’s right, at the height of our commitment we had 550,000 troops in Vietnam, but only about 80,000 were truly "foxhole soldiers."

Despite the widely-held belief that us Grunts were mere cannon fodder, there were in fact special characteristics that caused one to be placed in the "Queen of Battle" The two-day long battery of tests we took when first entering the Army was suppose to highlight such traits. Not that we were smarter then others, and for sure some folks ended up with us that probably should not have. Still and all, those of us in the "bush" took an almost perverse pride in our warrior status. We were real, live, By God Infantry and we never let the guys in the rear forget it, nor missed an opportunity to tell them what sorry excuses for soldiers they truly were.

Now some of the rear units, like the artillery and the combat engineers, had it worse than others; but when it came to insults we tended to lump them all together. We treated them with disdain and, like all front-line soldiers in all wars, blamed them rightly or wrongly for any misfortune that befell us. They took the heat for: late mail, or no mail; no hot chow, or cold by the time it arrived; artillery and air strikes that fell closer to us than the enemy; writing-up BS medals for undeserving officers; often almost criminally inaccurate "intelligence" ("Kemo Sabe, I see many hoof prints going in but none coming out"); procuring war booty that was sent to the rear when it was often our blood that had captured it; and so on and so forth.

We spent many hours inventing catchy names for them but our standard ones were: "non-essential personnel," "clerks and jerks," "chair-borne strangers" (a negative spin-off of Airborne Rangers), and our favorite, "REMF's" (rear-echelon MF’s and I'll let you guess at the missing letters).

Late in my tour it was decided to move our battalion across country to Kontum in the Central Highlands where the rest of the 4th Division was operating.. During the post-Tet fighting we had been assigned to guard a key bridge at Bong Son on coastal Highway 1. This bridge was so key that General Westmoreland had allegedly stated that if the VC managed to blow it up there had damn well better be a couple of infantry Companies go down with it. We were choppered into Phu Cat, an Air Force base on the South China Sea, from there we were going to catch a C-130 to Kontum.

Well, the plane was late and it was blazing hot beside the runway. Now a GI is nothing, if not upwardly-mobile. If he is in the sun, he'll find the shade; if you leave him in the shade long enough, he'll build a hooch and take a nap; if you let the kids sell him Cokes, he'll shortly be looking for the cold beer and the party girls. We were no exception. About 15 of us managed to find the terminal and, with a great clanking of packs, helmets and weapons, went in for a look-see. The place was air-conditioned and we allowed as how this was a great place to spend the rest of the war, so we flopped down and made ourselves at home.

After a few minutes I noticed that the Air Force guys were looking at us kind of strange. I then realized that we were among some hard-core REMF's and we were probably the first real-live grunts they had seen. Now, just coming in from the field we were muddy, needed shaves, maybe smelled a little, and, as usual, were armed-to-the-teeth—the M-16's and the machine guns, the bandoliers of ammunition and the grenades slung Pancho Villa-style across our chests, the helmets with graffiti all over them. When you went around like that daily it became second nature, you developed certain nonchalance, and you forgot how you must look to "normal" people.

After a few minutes of staring at us like we were exotic animals in a zoo—they came over and started some dialogue. Though we hadn’t had too many chances to impress such folks, we did have some standard lines stockpiled for just such an opportunity. Thus a typical conversation: ("AFG" equals Air Force Guy, "SG" equals Smelly Grunt)

AFG, "So you guys have actually seen some fighting?"

SG, "I guess you could say that; at least judging by the racket of the AK-47s"

AFG, "All these weapons and stuff you are carrying; do you ever actually use it all?"

SG, "Only once in a great while."

AFG, "Then why carry it all?"

SG, "Well, it is a dangerous business…….)

About then, the sergeant in charge of the terminal ambled over and said, "If any of you men want to shave and wash-up we have a bathroom." Now, he didn't say it in a friendly way or even in a militarily-authoritative way; it was more of a contemptible "Why are you despicable grunts sullying my spit-shined terminal?" As could have been predicted, his offer met with a crescendo of hoots and hisses along with such remarks as "Hey Sarge, come over here and wash THIS" and, strictly for dramatic effect of course, a couple of the guys loudly chambered a round into their M-16's. Somehow sensing he was not universally admired, he beat a hasty retreat back behind his desk and did not bother us again.

The plane never did arrive and we spent the night at the enlisted men barracks. They turned out to be nice guys and what a set up they had! Brick barracks with hot and cold running water, a huge outdoor movie screen, and they served us steaks and beer. We entertained them with a few war stories, they described their jobs loading the bombs or working on the planes—it was a nice respite from our usual rigors.

The next morning it was on to Kontum and the real war, but before we left I asked one of them, "Do you guys ever see any action here?" He pointed about 500 yards down the road and said, "Why yes, a mortar round landed there about a month ago." I didn't reply but thought to myself: "The VC mortarman that let that one fly was surely drunk or stoned 'cause there was for sure nothing worth hitting around here!"

 

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