Seorang Pelaut & Perang Vietnam
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|Operation Georgia 1966|
My dad graduated from high school in January of ‘44. They were on a semester system back then and graduated two classes a year. By June, my dad was in the Army, in England, and preparing to land on the beaches of Normandy. He wasn’t involved in the D-Day invasion; his outfit landed a week or two later and moved inland to join up with the initial invasion force.
Dad was in the 110th Infantry Regiment of the 28th Infantry Division. Because of the design of their arm patch, the 28th was known as The Old Bloody Bucket. The patch looked exactly like a bloody bucket. That nickname turned out to be most appropriate.
The 28th was involved in the battle of Hurtgen Forest, one of the bloodiest campaigns of World War II, and toward the end of that campaign, in December of ‘44, the 28th was the outfit the Germans first engaged in the opening moments of the Battle of the Bulge. My dad was wounded in Hurtgen Forest, and if he hadn’t been wounded on that day, and sent to a hospital facility in the rear at that time, he would probably have been killed in the fighting that followed. The 110th Infantry Regiment was almost totally wiped out in the Battle of the Bulge.
Children were being born in unprecedented numbers in the years just after World War II. By 1950 there were so many of us that new schools had to be built just to educate us. In some communities there were more new schools than old, but even with the new schools our classrooms were filled to overflowing.
When I was five, Eisenhower was president. There was a war going on in a place called Korea. There was a war going on in a place called Vietnam, too. The Korean war didn’t actually end, the combatants reached a truce. But the war in Vietnam did come to an end. Some guy named Ho Chi Minh led an army named after him (the Viet Minh) into battle at a place called Dienbienphu. His enemy, the French, were annihilated, and for the first time in more than two centuries, Vietnam was free from French colonial rule.
When I was in first grade, in 1953, I didn’t know anything about Vietnam, but I knew about polio. Every kid in the world knew about polio and we were scared to death. I remember one kid in particular, a little girl name Kathy. She started out that school year with me but didn’t finish it. Then, out of nowhere, Dr. Jonas Salk came up with a vaccine. It was a miracle! And those of us who were spared soon came to be known as Salk’s Babies. Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote a childcare book. It was well-read and enthusiastically received and in no time at all Salk’s Babies became Spock’s Babies.
There was a new-fangled gadget known as television, and there was a television show that every kid in America watched religiously every afternoon. It was called Howdy Doody, and naturally, we were soon referred to as Howdy Doody’s Kids.
We took on other brief but spectacular nicknames as well. We were all Mouseketeers and Hula-Hoopers. Then the guys wanted to be Roy Rogers and the girls wanted to be Dale Evans. New heroes emerged, and the guys all dressed like Davy Crockett and the girls just had to have a Barbie.
Then, in the late fifties, just when it looked like the name game had come to an end, a fellow by the name of Dick Clark syndicated a television show that originated out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was called American Bandstand and it was an instant hit nationwide. I immediately became a member of the Rock-N-Roll generation.
In 1961, I was in the seventh grade at Morningside Elementary School in Columbus, Georgia. There was this thing called NASA in this place called Cape Canaveral. NASA put this guy named Allen Shepherd in this thing called a space capsule. Then the space capsule was placed on top of this thing called a rocket and NASA launched all three into the stratosphere. It was incredible! And my seventh grade class got to watch the whole thing; live; as it happened; on television!
Young people in the sixties were in a constant search for heroes. We had to have someone to emulate. The astronauts were definitely heroes, they ranked right up there with Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle of the Yankees and Bart Starr and Paul Hornung of the Packers.
Columbus, Georgia, in the 1960s, was a military community. Fort Benning, home of the U.S. Army Infantry School, was just outside of town. I grew up seeing these young men in green uniforms swarming through the downtown area like a disturbed fire ant mound every weekend when I was a kid. I grew up hearing stories about infantry legends who had been stationed at Fort Benning; legends like general George Patton. In the late 1930s, he used to eat his Sunday dinners at Spano’s restaurant downtown. Talk about a hero; Patton was definitely a hero.
In 1960, a man named Kennedy was running for president. He came to Columbus to campaign and his plane landed at the Columbus airport. The airport was near my house, and on the way to school that morning my dad had to stop the car while Kennedy’s motorcade passed. I waved at the handsome man in the back seat and he waved back. HE WAVED RIGHT AT ME! I was overjoyed! My dad was mad. We missed a green light waiting for the motorcade to pass and he was going to be late for work.
That night at the dinner table I asked my mom and dad if they were going to vote for this Kennedy guy. My dad expressed concerns about his politics. My mom expressed concerns about the pope. Kennedy was a catholic and my mom was afraid that he’d do whatever the pope said to do if he became president. That seemed a little farfetched to me, but I didn’t question my mom and dad back then. They were going to vote for the other guy, a man named Richard Nixon. My dad said that Nixon was honest and that he’d fought communism in Washington. He had a dog named Checkers, I remember that, and he had a daughter named Julie that was close to my age.
My cousin, Lon, was exactly my age, and like Kennedy, he was a catholic. I asked Lon if he would do whatever the pope asked him to do. Lon said, “No, absolutely not!” In retrospect, Lon probably wasn’t the right person to ask. Catholics weren’t supposed to eat meat on Friday. Sometimes Lon ate meat on Friday. Lon tried to be a good catholic; most of the time he didn’t eat meat on Friday, but when he did, especially when he was staying at my house and my mom would cook steak or hamburger for supper, he would always go to confession as soon as possible after-the-fact. At confession, he would tell the priest what he had done, and the priest would tell him what to do so he wouldn’t have to go to hell. Lon took that stuff seriously. Rules were rules, and for thousands of years Catholics who didn’t obey the rules, Catholics who ate meat on Friday without confessing to a priest after-the-fact, had gone straight to hell when they died. That’s what Lon believed, and I believed him.
I don’t remember the exact year, but at some point in our formative years the catholic church had a very progressive pope. This pope convened a big conclave of cardinals and this conclave went over all the rules that Catholics lived by. At the conclusion of the conclave the pope announced that he was changing some of the rules. The rule changes didn’t seem like much to me, but to Lon they were devastating.
One of the rule changes made it all right for Catholics to eat meat on Friday. Lon went ballistic and I couldn’t understand why. He’d always wanted to eat meat on Friday but he couldn’t because of the rules. Now he could. Now it was legal. Now he could do it and he wouldn’t go to hell. When I pressed him on the matter his answer surprised me. Lon wasn’t mad about the rule change itself, he was mad about the unfairness of it. “What about the poor bastards who’ve gone to hell in the past,” he said. He especially felt sorry for the ones who’d died just the day before. The more I thought about it I began to see his point. Surely there was some poor soul who’d transgressed just the Friday before, and had died just one day before the rule was changed. Man, what a bummer! That poor soul was roasting in the ‘Big H’ and there was nothing anybody could do.
In November of 1960, Kennedy won the election. All through the Christmas holidays that’s all my family talked about. Would the pope tell Kennedy how to run the country? Would Kennedy do what the pope asked him to do?
My side of the family were Baptists. Lon finally put the question to rest when he asked my father, if he were president, would he do what Billy Graham asked him to do. My father said that he wouldn’t. “But that’s beside the point,” my dad said, “I don’t even know Billy Graham.” Lon pointed out that Kennedy probably didn’t know the pope, either. That was the end of that conversation.
Lon was a pretty smart kid, and very individualistic. Lon’s adult conversation with my dad, about Kennedy and the pope, about my dad and Billy Graham, that was pretty heady stuff for a twelve-year-old, and it was the first time I’d ever seen someone from my generation take on an adult about an adult issue. And Lon had prevailed! I remember thinking that it would be OK to express my own opinions after that. And I did. Often.
John F. Kennedy became the first man to serve as president who had been born in the twentieth century, and his youth inspired the youth of the nation.
On inauguration day, 1961, I was going through the lunch line at Morningside Elementary School. Kennedy was making his inaugural speech. The principal, Mr. Jenkins, had rigged up our public address microphone so that it picked up the sound from the TV set in his office. Just as I picked up a tray and was reaching for the silverware, I heard “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I was the last student in line and my teacher was reaching for a tray right behind me. I told her that I thought what the president had just said would probably be printed in future history books. The student just ahead of me said, “You’re wrong. You have to be dead for anybody to remember what you said.” The teacher said, “I don’t think so, Bobby. People don’t remember what modern day presidents say.”
In the fall of 1963, Kennedy was still alive. I was a sophomore at Jordan High School and “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” was printed right beside Kennedy’s picture on the cover of my brand new history book.
The Kennedy years were exciting; there never seemed to be a dull moment. First, there was this invasion of Cuba called The Bay of Pigs. I didn’t know much about what was going on at the time, but I remember hearing my father say that we never should have done whatever it was we did. Whatever it was we did must have really made the Cubans mad. It made the Russians mad, too.
The next thing I know the Russians are sending nuclear missiles to Cuba. Kennedy goes on national television and starts talking about using nuclear missiles against the Cubans and the Russians. People in my neighborhood start building bomb shelters in their backyards and we start practicing what to do at school in case we’re ever under nuclear attack. People were eager to support Kennedy during this crisis, but they were getting tired of the intrigue. Ever since Kennedy had become president we’d been involved in one international incident after another. The American people began to lose patience and his popularity began to wane. With the ‘64 elections only a year away, Kennedy’s advisors began to plan a campaign tour. The south would be the crucial vote, so the tour would start in the south.
In 1963, my girlfriend and I broke up right before school started. Her name was Pam Moore and we had been an item all through junior high school. My mother didn’t want me going steady with just one girl, so she really began to put the pressure on me to break up with Pam toward the end of my ninth grade year. I didn’t want to, I really liked her, but my mother had a way of making life miserable for you if you didn’t do exactly what she wanted you to do.
When I was in the ninth grade at Arnold Junior High School, while Pam and I were still an item, I’d sat on the bus on an out-of-town band trip with Leonore Barr. Leonore was Bob Barr’s daughter. Bob Barr was the band director at Jordan High School. The Jordan band was one of the top high school bands in the country, and Bob Barr was - without a doubt - the best high school band director in the country. When Pam found out that I’d sat with Leonore, she broke up with me, but we got back together a short time later. But in the late summer of 1963, under heavy pressure from my mother, I finally broke up with Pam.
In late October, two months into our sophomore year at Jordan, some of our mutual friends began to plot to get Pam and me back together. One day someone passed me a note in history class. I stuck the note in my pocket with the intention of reading it between classes. A few moments later a teacher came to the door and called my history teacher out in the hall. I took the note out of my pocket and read it. It was an invitation to a party. At the very bottom of the note there was a sentence marked in red. Pam would be at the party and she wouldn’t have a date. That was an implied suggestion that I shouldn’t have a date, either. I put the note back in my pocket just as the teacher came back in the room.
Our history teacher had just received some startling news and she shared it with the class. Ngho Dinh Diem, the president of South Vietnam, had just been assassinated in Saigon. I had never heard of Ngho Dinh Diem. I had never heard of Saigon. I had never heard of South Vietnam. I wasn’t interested in Diem or Saigon. I wasn’t interested in Vietnam. I was just very disappointed. I wasn’t going to be able to go to the party; I’d already made other plans for that weekend.
Because the party had been planned with the sole purpose of getting Pam and me back together, and I couldn’t be there, it was canceled. A few weeks later, sometime in the middle of November, I got another note in history class. Columbus High School, our cross-town rival, would be playing Glynn Academy in a state high school football playoff in Brunswick, Georgia on Friday, November 22nd. The game was going to be broadcast on local radio. That was a perfect excuse for a party. The date and time were set, the party was on, and Pam and I would be paired up in the process.
All throughout the day on Friday the 22nd I had nothing on my mind but the party. The whole reason for the party was to get Pam and me back together, but I couldn’t decide what to do. If we got back together my mom would kill me! If we didn’t get back together the people arranging the party would kill me! I’d be graveyard bound either way.
In mid-afternoon I was sitting in English class; the teacher was talking about Byron and Keats. Suddenly, the public address system came on and we could hear a radio news commentator talking in a hectic, frantic voice. It was Walter Cronkite. Something had happened in Dallas. Something bad had happened in Dallas. John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, had been shot and killed by an assassin.
There was talk about canceling the party, but we didn’t. It went on in spite of the pain we all felt. I was only fifteen, not old enough to drive, so my dad had to take me to the party. It was the first time in my life that I ever saw people on street corners selling extra editions of a newspaper. It was all so sad. It was all so unbelievable. I felt sorry for Mrs. Kennedy. I felt sorry for the president’s children, John-John and Caroline. I felt sorry for the American people. But I really felt sorry for the Columbus High School football team.
The Georgia High School Athletic Association had struggled throughout the day trying to decide whether or not they should cancel the playoff games scheduled for that night. At the very last minute they decided that the Columbus High-Glynn Academy game would, indeed, be played.
The Glynn Academy football team had gotten the news at around 2 o’clock in the afternoon. They had had from 2 o’clock until 7 or so to adjust to the horror of what had happened. But the poor Columbus High football team had been riding in their bus all day. When they got off the bus, just an hour or so before game time, the news hit them like a ton of bricks. They were in no mood to play football, and needless to say, they lost.
I had been leaning toward getting back together with Pam all day. But that night Pam and I walked down to Rigdon Park and talked. I don’t remember what I said, but whatever it was it was pretty lame. All I remember is that we didn’t get back together and it was my decision not to. When I decided a month or so later that I’d made a mistake, it was too late, she already had another boyfriend. November 22nd, 1963 is not a day I look back on fondly. Kennedy should never have gone to Dallas. The Georgia High School Athletic Association should have canceled that playoff game, and I should have gotten back together with Pam.
Many years later it was suggested that Kennedy might have been involved in the plot to assassinate Ngho Dinh Diem. But when Kennedy was killed, without knowing that he might have been involved, I pondered the irony: two heads-of-state had been assassinated in less than thirty days. I pondered another irony as well. It seemed that every major crisis that Kennedy had been involved in had had a Cuban connection. His death had a Cuban connection, too. Lee Harvey Oswald, the man accused of killing Kennedy, had been a member of the Fair Play For Cuba Committee. What did that mean? Were the Cubans involved in Kennedy’s murder? Oswald had been to Russia, too. He’d given up his U.S. citizenship in the fifties and moved to Russia; he’d married a Russian woman. Were the Russians involved?
Kennedy’s death jolted the Baby Boom generation. It had been a brutal death, and that brutal death had been captured on film by a man named Abraham Zapruder. There on the film, in 8mm Eastman Kodak color, the president’s brains exploded into a pink mist. That image alone shattered the innocence of my whole generation. I was heartsick. My cousin Lon was distraught.
Lon had a traumatic childhood. His mom, my aunt Edna George, my mom’s sister, had married young. The fellow she married was a Fort Benning soldier from Trenton, New Jersey. His name was Louis Constantini.
Uncle Louie had a lot of things working against him. He was a Yankee; he was Italian; he was a catholic; he was a soldier; he drank beer; he used foul language. But worst of all, he named his only female child, Letitia, after one of his former girlfriends. My mom and my mom’s mother hated the man. My dad made every effort to be tolerant; but I genuinely liked him.
Uncle Louie was a warrant officer in the Army. A warrant commission is something of a hybrid. A warrant officer isn’t actually an officer, but he isn’t an enlisted man, either. He’s somewhere in between. Enlisted men salute warrant officers, but even the highest ranking warrant officer has to salute a lowly Second Lieutenant.
I never figured out whether uncle Louie was in the regular army or the Army reserve. His job was to oversee the day-to-day operations at whatever Army reserve facility he happened to be assigned to at the time. He was the one person who was always there; everyone else just reported once a month for drill.
A warrant officer back then didn’t make a lot of money, so uncle Louie had always been forthright with Lon about what his future held in store. From the time Lon reached puberty uncle Louie reminded him once or twice a month that as soon as he graduated from high school he would be on his own. My parents and I thought uncle Louie was kidding. Lon knew better and he planned his life accordingly.
Lon and his family moved to Jacksonville, Florida when he was in high school. Uncle Louie had been assigned to a Special Forces reserve unit there. In other words, he was a Green Beret. When Lon was a junior, he signed up with the same reserve unit. Lon joined the unit on a delayed enlistment program. The plan was that as soon as he graduated from high school he’d leave for boot camp. But the Army has a way of screwing things up. When Lon got his orders for boot camp the report date was three days before his graduation ceremony. Poor Lon. On graduation night, while his classmates were walking down the aisle in their mortar boards and robes, Lon was in basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. His mom got his diploma in the mail.
Lon was either born to be a soldier or he was so damn glad to be away from his father that he would have endured any hardship. He wrote me several letters from boot camp and they were all upbeat. He genuinely seemed to be having the time of his life.
Joining the National Guard or the Army or Air Force Reserve was no easy task in the sixties. Young men were trying to get in by the thousands. It was a way to avoid the draft; a way to avoid Vietnam. Every unit was full; they all had waiting lists. Sometimes it took two or three years to make it to the top of a list. Lon had gotten on the list to join his unit when he was a junior in high school.
When Lon got out of boot camp he came to Columbus and spent some time with my family. It was toward the end of the summer and we were sitting in the living room talking. I was getting ready to go off to college. I wanted to know what Lon’s plans were, so I asked.
“What are you gonna do now?”
“The Army’s sending me to Intelligence School in Maryland.”
“Paratrooper training here at Benning.”
“Officer Candidate School? You can’t go to Officer Candidate School!”
“You’re only 18 years old for one thing. And don’t you have to have a degree for that?”
“Lon, get real! The army ain’t gon let you go to O.C.S!”
“Yes they will.”
“No, they won’t. Why would they? You’re only 18 for God’s sake!”
“Because I’m in the reserves.”
“If I were regular army it might be a problem. But I’m a reservist. Hey, they’re short Second Lieutenants right now; they need ‘em bad.”
“It ain’t gonna happen, man. You’re dreamin’.”
“They have a Reserve Component O.C.S. out at Benning now. They’ll let me in, I know they will.
“OK, then what? Let’s say they let you in. What then?”
“The Infantry Officer’s Basic Course. It’s a follow-up to O.C.S.”
“OK, then what?”
“No I’m not.”
“Yes you are. People join the reserves so they won’t have to go to Vietnam. Now, you’re tellin’ me you joined so you could. You’re crazy!”
“No I’m not. Look. It’s the only way I can get enough active duty time to qualify for the G.I. Bill. I need two years of active duty. Airborne, O.C.S., I.O.B.C. and Ranger School will take about a year; a year in Nam and I’m home free.”
“Home free. You may come home in a box!”
“Maybe. But if I make it back in one piece I won’t have anything to worry about. Officers get paid good money and I plan to put most of it in the bank. I’ll be on active duty for the next two years. With the money I save and the money I’ll get from the G.I. Bill when I get home, hey! I’ll be set.”
Lon was serious. But I just didn’t see any logic in his plan. Surely the Army would never pin Second Lieutenant bars on an 18 or 19 year-old. He sounded like Don Quixote. And his plan to become an officer seemed like a windmill; a giant windmill. His whole plan seemed like an incredible, unreachable, impossible dream.
By 1966, the year Lon and I graduated from high school, the war in Vietnam was well underway. From 1961 through 1964, U.S. forces had only served in an advisory capacity. But a naval skirmish changed all that. Late in 1964, there was a report that North Vietnamese gunboats had fired on two U.S. destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf. President Lyndon Johnson asked congress for a resolution that would allow him to send additional forces. He asked that more money be allocated for the war, too. Congress granted both requests and America entered the war in earnest when the Third Marine Expeditionary Force landed at Red Beach in DaNang in March of 1965.
In the fall of ‘66, while Lon was going through Army Intelligence School in Maryland, I enrolled at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I’d been offered a music scholarship. I’d played French horn in the band in high school and I joined the horn section in the Auburn band with a great deal of anticipation. I joined a college fraternity, too.
Years later, when I first saw the movie “Animal House”, it brought back some fond memories of my fraternity experience at Auburn. Sigma Phi Epsilon, the fraternity I joined, was just like the fraternity in the movie. We were stuck in an old house on Old Frat Row, and we couldn’t compete with the newer houses on New Frat Row because of appearances. Our house was a wreck. It was old and dilapidated; it was literally falling apart. There was an alumni effort to raise money for a new house, but that fund-raising effort didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. But the brotherhood of Sigma Phi Epsilon was special; the guys were really a great bunch and we had some wonderful times.
My fraternity big brother was Ed Mullins. He was from Birmingham and he’d gone to Shades Valley High School. Tom Baxter was one of my pledge brothers, he was from Birmingham, too, and a Shades Valley grad as well. Bob Gaines played French horn in the band; he was from the Atlanta area. Phil Wagnon played French horn, too. He was from Decatur, Georgia. Ferrell Curlee, The Wiz, was from Montgomery, Alabama. He’d gone to Robert E. Lee high school there and he was a card. Ferrell had this uncanny ability to predict the future, and he was able, sometimes, to will certain things to happen. Somebody started calling him ‘The Wizard’ and the nickname (shortened to ‘The Wiz’) stuck.
My first quarter in school, the quarter that I pledged, the fraternity didn’t have a house mother. Wayne Knox, who was the only other member of the fraternity from Columbus, kind of took on that role for himself. He was always bossing everybody around, so everyone started calling him ‘Mother’.
It was a tradition at Sig Ep that before each neophyte class could be initiated they had to take one of the brothers on a road trip. It was also a custom that the pledge trainer would choose which brother got tripped. Our pledge trainer was my big brother, Ed. Ed decided that Mother would be the one we’d take on the road.
A road trip was not a pleasant experience for the one being tripped. A road trip was nothing more than the kidnapping of the one being tripped and the kidnappers would then take that person at least 50 miles away, drop him off, and then leave. The victim had to get back to Auburn on his own.
In the 60's, the last thing that occurred before any neophyte class got initiated was the blackball ceremony. All the brothers met in a called chapter meeting and the ceremony began. There were white balls and black balls, and a box to drop the balls into. As each neophyte’s name was called, the box was passed, and each brother dropped either a white ball or a black ball into the box. If there was even one black ball in the box after all the brothers had voted, the neophyte in question did not get initiated. In fact, they were no longer associated with the fraternity in any way. If they lived in the house, they had to move out. Blackballing was serious business!
The road trip always occurred on the Friday night before the blackball ceremony on Saturday. The formal initiation was then held on Sunday. Because the brother being tripped could blackball all the pledges, it was mandatory that he be tripped far enough away that it would be impossible for him to get back in time to participate in the passing of the box.
Two of my neophyte brothers were from Atlanta. Just outside Atlanta there was a monastery in the small community of Conyers. It was rumored that the monks at this monastery had to take a vow of silence. In other words, they couldn’t talk to anyone, not even themselves. When we began planning our road trip, we decided that the monastery was the perfect place; we’d take Mother there, strip him to his underwear, and leave. There would be no way he could get back to Auburn in time to participate in the passing of the box.
It was a cold, freezing, rainy night in January of ‘67. Mother and his roommate, James Brimson, lived in an apartment off-campus. We staked out the apartment starting at around 10 o’clock in the evening. Mother and Brimson weren’t home, so we waited. We were in two cars, and we nearly froze to death while we waited. Finally, sometime around mid-night, Mother showed up. He got out of his car; we got out of ours, and he knew when he saw us that he was in trouble.
Wayne started running and we were in hot pursuit. It took more than 30 minutes to finally run him down. When we did, we had to man-handle him back to the cars which were quite some distance away. We tied him up, gagged him, blindfolded him, and laid him down in the back seat of one of the vehicles. Then, our two-car caravan got on Interstate 85. We drove west toward Montgomery for 15 or 20 miles, then we turned off the Interstate and drove down a country road or two. Then, we worked our way back to I-85 and headed northeast toward Atlanta. Even though Wayne was blind-folded, we didn’t know how good his sense of direction was. That’s why we did the Montgomery/country road side trip thing; to throw him off.
Wayne was scared to death. He kept telling us that he was going to blackball all of us. It was a scary thought. If we didn’t pull this thing off, he would, too. There was no doubt in anybody’s mind; he’d do it!
The drive to Atlanta was pretty uneventful. Wayne finally settled down but we could tell he was worried. Atlanta is a good two hours from Auburn, and with the Montgomery/country road side trip thing we’d been on the road for more than 2 hours when we got there. Conyers was another 30 or 40 minutes north, and by the time we finally got to the monastery it must have seemed like a 500 mile trip to poor Wayne.
It was still dark when we got there. It was foggy, too; so foggy that we couldn’t see the hood ornament on the car. You have to go down this long road to get to the main monastery building. We pulled up right in front and took Wayne out of the car. We made him strip to his underwear. He was shaking like a leaf. We grabbed his clothes and piled into the cars. He was crying like a baby when we left. There was a stop sign at the end of the monastery road and we hung Wayne’s clothes on the sign. It was freezing out. We didn’t want him to die of exposure, and we figured he’d surely walk back to the highway, so all he had to do was walk to the end of the road and he’d have his clothes back. We drove off at a high rate of speed laughing all the way.
We decided to stop and eat breakfast before returning to Auburn. We laughed the whole time. We could just picture Wayne knocking on the monastery door. We could picture the monks, not being able to talk, and Wayne wondering why they wouldn’t talk to him. This had to be the best road trip any Sig Ep pledge class had ever pulled off!
After breakfast, we headed back to Auburn. The weather had cleared and it was down-right balmy, probably in the mid-fifties. We laughed and joked all the way back complimenting each other on a job well done. We pulled up in front of the fraternity house. Suddenly, Tom Baxter, who was riding shotgun in the car I was in, yelled, “Holy Crap! Is that Mother on the porch?” We all stared in horror! IT WAS! And Brimson, too!
As it turns out, Brimson had seen us kidnap Wayne the night before. When we left Auburn, Brimson had followed us all the way to Conyers. Less than five minutes after we’d dropped Wayne off, Brimson had picked him up. While we were eating breakfast they’d been on their way back.
To make a long story short, Wayne was adamant that he was going to blackball all of us. The brothers tried to talk him out of it, but Wayne showed no signs of backing down. In the chapter meeting, Wayne dropped a black ball on all of us. But the sergeant-at-arms only counted the white balls; he didn’t acknowledge the black ones. Supposedly, when the final tally was read, and all of us were approved for initiation, Wayne stormed out of the meeting. We were all initiated that Sunday and it was one of the most moving and most incredible experiences of my life.
Viet Cong Fighter
Ferrell and I roomed together the first quarter after initiation. We went to Columbus and bought a refrigerator and put it in our room. I’m not talking about one of those little portable jobs; I’m not even sure they’d been invented yet. No, the Wiz and I had an old, used, big-ass refrigerator. We had ice when we wanted it, cold Pabst Blue Ribbon, and lunch meats, mustard, mayonnaise and ketchup. We also had every brother in the house in and out of our room at all hours of the day and night. We finally put a lock on the door and that solved that problem.
I don’t remember when for sure, whether it was my freshman or sophomore year, but the Alabama Crimson Tide football team was in the hunt for the national championship, and the Wiz was bound and determined to hex them out of any chance of winning it.
At the Auburn/Alabama game that year, at Legion Field in Birmingham, the Tide needed a win over Auburn to stay in the hunt for the title. It was the last game of the season for both teams, and a good bowl appearance for Alabama hung in the balance. Ferrell, Ed Mullins, Bob Gaines, Phil Wagnon, Tom Baxter and I were all in the band, and Ferrell started putting the hex on the Alabama team as soon as we took our seats after we marched into the stadium.
The Auburn and Alabama bands sat on the same side of the field; us on about the 10 yard-line at one end, and them on the 10 yard-line at the other. Ferrell, when he’d hex you, would stand up, wave his arms in the air, and yell “Ahhhh-eeee-yahhhhh!” as loud as he could. Ferrell did this over and over again, but Alabama seemed to be totally unaffected. Late in the game, however, while Auburn still had a chance to win, Alabama lined up to go for it on a critical fourth down play. Ferrell stood up, started waving his arms, and yelled “Ahhhh-eeee-yahhhh” as loud as he could. Alabama’s attempt at a first down failed, and I swear that Bear Bryant, the Alabama coach, turned and stared directly at Ferrell and uttered a vile obscenity. I wasn’t the only one that noticed it. Everybody that knew what was happening started yelling, “Wiz, you did it! You did it!” We’ll never know for sure, but you’ll never convince me otherwise.
In 1967, my sophomore year, a young female freshman named Donna Dickey, a fellow band member, complained for half the football season because Auburn didn’t have a Bota-Gita cheer. Her high school back home had one and Donna was distraught. The only way to shut her up was to create one. So, I did:
BOTA GITA, BOTA GITA, BOTA GITA, BAH! RAH, RAH, RAH! SIS BOOM BAH! WEAGLE, WEAGLE, WAR DAMN EAGLE! KICK ‘EM IN THE BUTT, BIG BLUE! HEY!
I’m proud to say that the Bota-Gita cheer has become an integral part of the Auburn legacy and is still a student body chant to this day.
While I spent the next two years at Auburn, Lon began his glorious quest. He completed his training at the intelligence school in Maryland and came back to Benning for Airborne School. Then, just like he’d said he would, he applied for O.C.S. I don’t understand the procedure, but all applicants for O.C.S. back then had to go before a review committee. Lon went before the committee and, just like I figured, they really had a problem with his age. They had a problem with the fact that he didn’t have a college degree, too. I don’t know what he said; I don’t know how he pulled it off, but he got in; he got accepted.
The Army’s O.C.S. for regular officers took eighteen weeks to complete. But the reserve component program only took nine. Nine weeks after he’d entered the training, at age 19, Lon was commissioned. His mom came to the ceremony to pin on his bars. When the ceremony was over Lon was a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army Reserve.
The weekend after Lon graduated from O.C.S. he reported for weekend drill at his (and his father’s) reserve unit. His father had to salute him. Uncle Louie was not pleased. He saluted, but he still made Lon take out the garbage when they got home on Sunday night.
The following week Lon reported back to Benning for I.O.B.C. I.O.B.C. is a basic training course for infantry officers. After I.O.B.C. he would only have one more windmill to conquer before volunteering for Nam; and that windmill would be the most difficult one of all. Ranger School.
Meanwhile, in Vietnam, from 1965 through 1967, U.S. forces and the enemy, the Vietcong (VC), tested each other in skirmish after skirmish. At first, these skirmishes turned into major battles like the bloodbath in the Ia Drang Valley. But by February of ‘68 things had quieted down a lot. For a five or six-month period prior to February of ‘68, Vietcong commanders had decided not to fight the big battles. Instead, they had chosen to engage in guerrilla hit-and-run attacks. General Westmoreland, the man in charge in Vietnam said:
“We’re just now beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.” The news media back home believed him. Then, in February of ‘68, all hell broke loose.
The hit-and-run attacks had been a ruse; the VC had lulled U.S. and South Vietnamese forces into a false sense of security. With the advent of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, Tet, North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces unleashed a series of savage assaults all across South Vietnam. From Hue in the north to Saigon in the south the fighting was fierce.
In the northern part of South Vietnam there was a marine detachment at a base called Khe Sanh. Khe Sanh’s position, and vulnerability, prompted the North Vietnamese commander, General Giap, to launch a full-blown invasion against the base. The siege went on for months. As U.S. forces repulsed and put down the Tet strikes in other parts of the country, the assault on Khe Sanh got more and more intense. It took a gargantuan effort, but the Marines prevailed. Then, something strange happened. General Westmoreland shut Khe Sanh down. Just a matter of weeks after the U.S. victory there he ordered the base abandoned. Everyone wanted to know why; especially the Khe Sanh survivors and the families of the ones who’d died. Westmoreland just said that the base was no longer of any strategic importance. As soon as he said that the news media back home reported that the light at the end of the tunnel had just gone out.
In the Spring of ‘67, Lon had taken a break from the military and enrolled at Jacksonville University in Jacksonville, Florida. He’d managed to save up a little money, so he decided to get an early start on his education.
One day I got a telephone call. It was Lon. He wanted to talk about Sigma Phi Epsilon. It seems that they were forming up a new Sig Ep chapter on the J.U. campus. Lon wanted to know if I thought he should join. I thought it would be pretty neat if he did; then we’d be brothers. How many cousins ever get a chance to be brothers, too?
Lon joined, and at the end of that quarter I got a telephone call from a Sig Ep at the University of Florida. Their fraternity was going to head up the initiation ceremony and he wanted to know if I wanted to come down and participate in Lon’s initiation. Of course I did! Not only did I participate, I played an instrumental part in the ceremony. It was a great day, and when it was over Lon and I were brothers.
Early in ‘68, president Lyndon Johnson went on national television and told a stunned nation that he would not seek re-election as president. Within days there was a political stampede; the door was wide open and dozens of candidates, both Democrat and Republican, announced that they were seeking the nomination. One of those who announced was Bobby Kennedy, the brother of former president John F. Kennedy. Hubert Humphrey from Minnesota threw his hat in the ring, too, and George C. Wallace, the Governor of Alabama, ran as an Independent.
In April of ‘68, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. He was gunned down in cold blood as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Less than two months later, in June of ‘68, presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy was gunned down in a kitchen corridor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He’d just won the California presidential primary. It seemed like the world was going mad.
In the Fall of ‘68, I was majoring in music education and didn’t want to be. My grades were awful, and my interest in school was non-existent. What I needed was time away from school to think about what I really wanted to do with my life. But that wasn’t an option. In 1968, if you were single, over 18, physically fit, and you didn’t have a college deferment, you were definitely going to get drafted. I did not enroll at Auburn that September and I knew that it was just a matter of time before the draft board came calling.
I wasn’t the only one in college majoring in something I didn’t like. There were hundreds of thousands of others and some very bad choices were made. Many were majoring in things they had no interest in at all, but they stayed in school to avoid the draft. Young men who were married were not as likely to get drafted as those who weren’t, so many got married, to young ladies they didn’t really love, just to stay out of the military. Young men who were married and had children were even less likely to get drafted, so many of these marriages-of-convenience also resulted in planned offspring. But these offspring were, in many cases, children that weren’t wanted; children that were conceived just to keep the father out of the service.
I had spent the entire summer of ‘68 thinking over my options. I could stay in school, majoring in something I knew I would never use in real life, drop out of school and get drafted, find a girlfriend and get married, or, go into the military, but do so in a way that offered me some control over the situation. I didn’t have a steady girlfriend, but even if I’d had one, I would never have considered a marriage-of-convenience. I was wasting my parents’ money in the pursuit of a degree I didn’t want; a degree I knew I’d never use. What I needed was time to decide what I really wanted to do. With no other options avail-able, the only way for me to buy time would be to join the military.
If you joined the Army in 1968, your minimum enlistment obligation was three years. If you got drafted into the Army your obligation was only two. Either way, your chances of getting sent to Vietnam were high.
The Marines had prevailed at Khe Sanh, but they were still dying by the hundreds in other battles every week. The minimum enlistment in the Marines was three years and - if I joined - the chance that I’d be sent to Vietnam was about 95%. I gave the Marines no consideration at all.
With the exception of a cousin, Charles Reynolds, everyone I’d ever known that had been in the Air Force was a wimp and a sissy. I didn’t even bother to find out what the air force options were. I had always been infatuated with Navy recruiting posters. The idea of sailing around the world and stopping at different ports-of-call certainly had its appeal. The downside - a Navy enlistment would require a minimum of four years. The upside - I wouldn’t have to worry about being sent to Vietnam; at least that’s what I thought at the time. I decided to see a Navy recruiter.
All recruiters are full of hot air. They make joining their particular branch of the service seem like a walk in the park. The Columbus, Georgia Navy recruiter was no different. Recruiters get points based on the qualifications of the people they sign up. The fact that I’d had two years of college made me a high point item. I got wined and dined big-time. The recruiter promised me an ‘A’ School, and because I had two years of college he promised I’d go in as a seaman, an E-3, rather than as a seaman apprentice, an E-2.
In the summer of ‘68, while I was contemplating my options, Lon came to town for a visit. When he found out I was thinking about joining the Navy he got excited. He told me about a Navy option that I didn’t know about at the time.
Lon spent an entire weekend telling me about the Navy’s UDT/SEAL program. I knew about UDT, Underwater Demolition Teams, but I’d never heard about the SEALs.
SEAL was an acronym for SEa, Air and Land. In other words, SEALs were trained as Navy frogmen; they were a threat from the sea.. They went to Airborne Jump School at Fort Benning - paratrooper training - they were a threat from the air. And they were trained in small unit tactics just like the Green Berets; they were a threat on land. Lon made the program sound so exciting that I decided to talk to the recruiter. I don’t know why I was interested, but I was.
When I walked in the recruiter’s office and asked him to tell me about the SEALs, he couldn’t contain his excitement. It seems that recruiters got mega points for signing someone up for SEAL training. It was called BUDS. BUDS stood for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL. But he’d never signed anyone up before, so he had to dig out his recruiting manual and find out what the procedure was.
To qualify for BUDS a recruit had to meet certain basic requirements. First of all, you had to have played a team sport in high school. I wasn’t a starter but I’d played football, so I qualified there. Now, all I had to do was go to Macon, Georgia, take a special physical that BUDS recruits had to pass, and qualify with an acceptable time in a one-mile run and a half-mile swim. I had already decided to join the Navy, the recruiter had already started processing my paperwork, but I wasn’t totally sold on BUDS. I was, however, curious as to whether I could qualify or not, so I went to Macon for the tests. The physical was simple enough, you had to do so many push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups; I knew that wouldn’t be a problem. But the mile run and the half-mile swim, I had no idea how I’d do on those.
Macon was the designated test site for all BUDS applicants in South Georgia. But as it turned out, I was the first person in South Georgia who had come there for the tests. They were totally lost. They had no idea what to ask me to do. They were totally and ridiculously clueless! The instructions seemed simple enough. Applicants had to be able to do the required number of push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups, they had to be able to run a mile in under seven minutes, and they had to be able to swim a half-mile (so many laps in a swimming pool) in a designated amount of time. The push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups were a breeze, but the Macon guys didn’t have access to a track. They didn’t have access to a pool, either. But they did have the authority to approve or disapprove my application. The Macon people had a long, private conversation with my recruiter (behind closed doors). Then, they all came out and asked me if I THOUGHT I could do the run and the swim in the required minimum times. I had no idea whether I could or not, but I assured them that I THOUGHT I COULD. The next thing I know I’m BUDS qualified, and the recruiter takes me to this fancy restaurant and buys me a big, juicy, 16 oz. steak.
All the way home from Macon I had second thoughts about joining the Navy as a BUDS candidate. I hadn’t even given the Army or the Marines a look because I didn’t want to chance being sent to Vietnam. The reason I had chosen the Navy to begin with was the Nam thing. In the Navy, the chance of being sent to Vietnam seemed non-existent. If I went BUDS, I’d go to Nam, no doubt about it! Before we even got back to Columbus I had made up my mind; I would not join up on the BUDS program. I was sure there were other ways to qualify for an ‘A’ school, and that ‘A’ school might help me decide what to do with the rest of my life. I began daydreaming about the possibilities. What about electronics? Maybe I could get an ‘A’ school in electronics; that would be a program with a future outside the military.
When I got home the first thing I saw when I walked in the door, just laying there on the coffee table, was a letter from the Draft Board. It was a notice to report for a pre-induction physical. I WAS BEING DRAFTED!
I was back in my car and headed for the recruiting office before my parents even knew I was home. I had a million questions. Where was I in the sign-up process with the Navy? Had the recruiter already put me in the pipeline? Would I be able to get in the Navy before the Army got me in the draft?
I bolted into the recruiters office and gave him the bad news. I had paperwork to report for a draft physical. How much time did I have before the Army would get me? The recruiter told me to relax. He’d already started processing me. The FBI check was already being done, and he told me I’d get my choice of basic training commands.
“So, do you want to go to Great Lakes, Orlando, or San Diego?”
I protested big time. I told him that I had decided against going in on BUDS. He got a strange look on his face. Then he flat-out lied to me. He told me that if I didn’t go in on BUDS he’d have to start the process all over again. I knew that wasn’t true, but for some reason I said, OK, that I’d go in on BUDS. He was all smiles again, and he promised to put my paperwork on the top of the stack. I was pretty sure he would, too. If I got drafted before he could get me in the Navy he’d lose all those points he was going to get for signing me up for BUDS.
In 1968, the Georgia Armed Forces Induction Center was located in the old Sears building on Ponce De Leon Avenue in Atlanta. I drove up on the appointed day and reported for my physical at the appointed hour.
It took more than two days to complete the process. I got there on a Thursday night and they were loaded down with people. They had run out of bunk space and were sending people to nearby flea-bag hotels that they had accommodation agreements with. I wound up in a room with three country bumpkins from North Georgia. One was from Dahlonega, one was from a small town just outside of Athens, and the other was from Cartersville. My three roommates were Army bound and I felt genuinely sorry for the Army after spending a night with them. They’d gone to a nearby porno shop and bought some really sleazy magazines. They bought a bottle of cheap bourbon, too, and they were lit in no time flat. They partied hard for a couple of hours, but by 9 o’clock they were dead drunk.
The physicals the next day were torture. It was one line after another and one embarrassment after another. We were prodded along like cattle, poked and pricked at every turn, and the process was constant and irritating.
Half of the men at the induction center were there to be sworn in. The other half were there for their physicals; they’d be called back at a later date and sworn in then. Most of the men were draftees, but each branch of the service handled their inductions at the center.
One of the saddest things I’ve ever seen in my life happened while I was waiting in a receiving room for the main portion of my physical. I was sitting next to a big strapping black kid named Eddie. He was from Macon and he was there to be inducted into the Army. He was 18, just out of high school, and he’d been drafted. He wasn’t excited about it, but he’d had several months to get used to the idea. Then, out of nowhere, a Marine captain and an Army lieutenant walked into the room. They called out a name. It was Eddie’s. Eddie got up and walked over to the two men. I couldn’t hear what the officers were saying, but I heard Eddie start crying. He was sobbing like a baby. He started saying, “Ya’ll can’t do that. Please tell me ya’ll can’t do that.”
The Army lieutenant lowered his head and backed away. The Marine captain took Eddie by the arm and led him out of the room.
An hour or so later I found out what had happened. Eddie had been drafted into the Marines. Up until that moment I had no idea that that could happen. I thought that you could only be drafted into the Army. But I was wrong. It seems that every month or so the Marines got a certain percentage of the draftees if they were below their sign-up quota. They were below their quota for that particular month, and one of the draftees they got was Eddie. To this day, every August, I think about Eddie and wonder whatever happened to him. Did his name, by chance, become one of those engraved on that ominous black wall in Washington? Unfortunately, I’ll never know. I didn’t really know Eddie - I just knew his first name. I don’t recall ever knowing what his last name was.
The next several weeks were the longest and most agonizing of my life. I called the Navy recruiter almost every day. I bothered him mercilessly trying to speed up the process. But no matter how many calls I made he couldn’t tell me anything.
Then, one day in October I went to the mailbox. There were two letters addressed to me and both were induction notices. Both instructed me to report to the induction center in Atlanta on the same day. One was an induction notice for the Army, the other was for the Navy. I WAS SCARED TO DEATH!
I immediately drove to the Navy recruiting office in Columbus and showed the recruiter both notices. He made a phone call to Atlanta and talked with one of the Navy officers at the induction center. It was a very long phone call, but when it was over he told me that I had nothing to worry about. He typed up a detailed set of instructions that told me exactly what to do on the day that I reported. The Navy was going to take care of me; as soon as I got to Atlanta they were going to swear me in. At least that’s what the recruiter told me.
Each induction notice had come with a bus ticket to Atlanta. I had two. Greyhound didn’t have the names of all the people they were to transport that day, but they did have a ticket count, and they kept coming up one ticket short. It was October 27, 1968. The bus was over an hour late in leaving; the driver kept waiting for the missing inductee. Finally, the bus pulled out of the station. In less than 24 hours I’d either be a soldier, a sailor, or a marine. I was miserable. I was absolutely scared to death.
Finally, the bus from Columbus got to the Greyhound station in downtown Atlanta. From there, we were supposed to transfer to a city bus and get to the induction center that way. I wasn’t in any mood to waste time. I waved down a taxi and told him to burn rubber to the induction center.
It was late in the day when I got there. I went running upstairs to the Navy offices but I was too late, they’d already left for the day. I went back downstairs and checked in. Just like before, the facility was overcrowded. I was given a voucher for accommodations in another flea-bag hotel. It was within walking distance so I walked over, checked in, and then went and got a bite to eat. Again, I was placed in a room with a bunch of North Georgia farm boys. They talked about girls and drag racing until the wee hours of the morning. I watched TV. It was late October and the ‘68 Olympics were in full swing. The only good thing about the hotel stay was that one of the three TV channels we could get was broadcasting the Olympics. I had the TV to myself and watched George Foreman win another bout on his way to an Olympic Gold Medal in boxing. Before I turned in, I thought long and hard about Eddie and the Marines. If I didn’t get in the Navy, could that possibly happen to me?
As soon as I saw sunlight through the hotel window, I got up and got a shower. As soon as I got dressed I checked out of the flea-bag and raced back to the Induction Center. I rushed into the Navy offices and told the enlisted man working the desk that I had a real emergency. He acted totally unconcerned and told me to report downstairs with all the others. I pulled out my two sets of induction papers and shoved them under his chin. I did not mince words:
“Excuse me, asshole, but I’m about to be drafted!”
He looked at the paperwork, looked up at me, then made his way, in a hurry, to an office just down the hall. In no time at all a Navy lieutenant came out and introduced himself. I handed him the instruction sheet the recruiter had given me and he read it very intently. After he’d read it, he looked up, patted me on the back, and said, “Don’t worry, sailor, you’ll be in San Diego by nightfall.”
The next few hours were an endless stream of paperwork. The most interesting, and humorous, was the general questionnaire. It was designed to tell the Navy every intimate detail of your life. In essence, we were told not to leave anything blank; to answer every question as truthfully as possible. They wanted to know if I was a homosexual. Had I ever had a venereal disease? There were a bunch of questions like that.
One question in particular caused a bit of a problem; had I ever walked in my sleep? My mother had always said that I did; my father had always said that I didn’t. It had been a hot topic of conversation when I was young. I asked the officer supervising the session how I should answer the question. He just said ‘truthfully’. I kept insisting that I didn’t know what the truth was. We were getting nowhere fast when I finally just asked him what the consequences would be if I had. He said that the Navy wouldn’t take me if I was a sleep-walker. I asked him if the Army would. He said he didn’t know, but that if I wanted to know I should walk downstairs and ask them. I wasn’t about to do that. I asked him if the Marines would. He said he doubted it, the Marines and the Navy went by the same rules. He finally asked me what the answer was and I said I’d get back with him after I made a phone call home to find out. He said fine, that he’d hold my paperwork until then.
Things got really busy, and I did try to call home once to find out, but my father wasn’t in at work and my mom wasn’t home. I knew what they’d both say anyway. Mom would say that I did. Dad would say that I didn’t. Later in the day things got so hectic that I just forgot about it. I never went back to fill in that part of the form.
If you had two years of college; if you had completed 105 quarter hours of college work, you were inducted into the Navy as a seaman, an E-3, rather than a seaman recruit, an E-2. My college transcript was included in the packet of information the recruiter had sent along with me. The Navy enlisted man in charge of making that determination was an idiot. He called me over when he was reviewing my grades and said:
“Here, son, add up your college hours for me. I don’t know how.”
I was happy to oblige. I started adding up my grades and realized, to my horror, that if you discounted the three courses I’d made a D in, I would not have the required 105 hours. I asked the guy what the qualification was, did I need to have passed all the hours, in other words, no F’s, or was a D a disqualification? He was curt in his answer:
“Now son, if I knew the answer to that question I wouldn’t need your help, would I?”
I was curt in my response as well:
“Fine then. I have 108 hours.”
He seemed quite glad to hear it and a few hours later, when I was sworn in, I was a seaman, an E-3 in the United States Navy.
I was sitting in the Navy’s main reception area when an enlisted man walked up to one of the officers. What he said sent a chill down my spine:
“Sir, the Army’s here looking for a guy named Powers.”
My heart began pumping in overdrive. The officer didn’t waste any time.
“Powers, where are you?”
I raised my hand.
“Don’t leave the building, but get lost for 15 minutes and don’t tell me where you’re going.”
I jumped up and ran. As soon as I cleared the door, into an adjoining room, I heard the officer tell the enlisted man to tell the Army guy that I wasn’t there, and more specifically, that he didn’t know where I was. Technically, that was true. But specifically, it was a lie. Officers have this honor thing; he was just stretching his a bit.
The Army had begun a floor-by-floor search for me. By this time they’d figured out that I was there, but that I was trying to get into another branch of the service; they just didn’t know which one. I had heard through the grapevine that the Marines hadn’t made their monthly quota; that they’d be getting their pick of some of the draftees. I peaked out the door when the Army guy went by and there was a Marine officer with him. I’d seen this scenario played out before. All I could think about was Eddie from Macon.
As soon as I saw the Army and marine officers clear the stairwell, I ran back into the adjoining room and begged the Navy officer to do something. He gathered up a handful of us and took us into the room I’d just left. It took no time at all. He read us the oath one line at a time. We repeated it one line at a time, and when we were through, that was it; we were in the Navy.
I’d made two new friends during the induction process. Henry ‘Hank’ Fabian was from Atlanta, and Steve Snow was from Rome (Georgia). I don’t know what Steve had done in civilian life, but Hank had worked for Southern Bell in Atlanta. He’d installed telephones for a year or two after graduating from high school.
Hank and Steve and I began to talk, and we were all three surprised to learn that each of us had joined up on the UDT/SEAL program. We spent the next hour or so getting to know each other better. We sat together on the bus ride to the airport. By the time we got to Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport we felt like we’d known each other for months.
Besides me, Fabian and Snow, there were two other guys going to boot camp in San Diego. We had each been given a manila envelope that contained our orders, but I had been placed in charge of the group because I was senior in rank; I was an E-3, they were E-2s. It was my responsibility to keep the group together and to make sure we got where we were supposed to go at the duly appointed time. Fabian and Snow ribbed me about being in charge. Snow point-blank told me, and I was never sure whether he was kidding or not, that if I bossed him around at all he’d whip my ass. I didn’t say or do anything that could have been misconstrued in that regard. Snow was a feisty little bastard, and he was going to be a Navy SEAL. I certainly didn’t want to make him mad.
We boarded a Delta flight just as the sun was going down. In no time at all we were in the air and bound for San Diego. We all had a few drinks on the plane. None of us were 21, but the stewardesses knew we were new recruits, and there seemed to be an unwritten rule that if you were in the military, screw your age, you could drink on a commercial flight.
All of us had drifted off to sleep by the time the plane landed at Love Field in Dallas. Dallas was an intermediate stop, and another load of new inductees got on the plane there. Most were from Texas, but some were from Mississippi. Both groups looked like homesick puppies. The Texas bunch kept to themselves, but the Mississippi guys split up and mingled about.
We all had a few more drinks. Then, most of us settled in for a nap. We were all a little anxious about what it would be like in boot camp, but we were tired; the induction process had done us in.
When the pilot made the announcement that we were preparing to land in San Diego, it woke me up. I really got antsy then. My life as a civilian would be coming to an end in just minutes, and that was a sobering thought. The plane landed, rolled up to the gate, and we all exited the aircraft with lumps in our throats. And there they were, a group of Navy and Marine Corps non-commissioned officers waiting like prowling lions to pounce on their prey. I expected the worse, but the Navy non-coms were downright pleasant. One held a sign that read: NAVY TRAINEES, FORM UP HERE.
The marine non-coms were like monsters. Some of the guys on the plane were Marine Corps recruits; they’d come to San Diego to report for boot training at Camp Pendelton. They were scared to death, and the marine non-coms started treating them like dirt immediately. I was damn glad I’d beaten the draft. I had a funny feeling that I’d have been in that bunch if things had gone a little differently back in Atlanta earlier in the day. The way we were treated, Navy recruits and marine recruits, was as different as night and day.
All of us had certain expectations as to what we thought the Navy would be like. Anytime I meet a young person today who is thinking about joining the Navy, and I hear them talking about what they think it’s going to be like, I tell them that it ain’t gonna be the way they think it’s gonna be. They never believe me. They have this certain level of expectation and they just know it’s going to be that way. But it never is. It always happens. and when I hear from them later they always tell me that I was right. Boot camp, especially. For all of us, whatever we thought it would be like, it wasn’t.
Once the Navy non-coms got a head count and were satisfied that they had everybody, they started herding us toward a line of gray buses for the ride to the Recruit Training Depot. Then, all of a sudden, one of the recruits yelled out, “Hey, what about my bags?”
The comedy began.
We had all been instructed not to bring anything with us except a hand-held bag containing shaving gear and other toiletry items. As it turned out, one of the guys from Texas had packed several suitcases. One of the non-coms went with him to baggage claim. It was funny. The other non-coms were cursing and yelling, but all fronts aside, everyone present knew that they were actually laughing inside.
A Sailor Remembers the Vietnam War
by Robert Powers