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Seeing Your Buddies Covered With Glory First Eats Your Lunch
(Reader Discretion is Advised)
By Jim Morris Soldier of Fortune Magazine
In the early months of 1963, I received some odd assignments, as assistant adjutant of the 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne). I supervised the carving of a large pair of parachute wings out of ice for a formal ball. I ordered the names of officers departing from the Group headquarters engraved on boxes of dessert bronzewear purchased cheaply in Thailand (field grade) and on sterling silver silent butlers purchased even more cheaply on Okinawa (company grade). I had my ass chewed into slivers of bloody fat for misspelling Lt. Col. Matola's ("Motola") name on his farewell gift, a brass usabata. I do not to this day know what a usabata is, or what purpose it may serve, other than as a platform for engraving.
I found all this deeply humiliating.
My selection as assistant adjutant had nothing to do with any administrative skills I might have, which were nil. I had become the assistant adjutant so that I might perform the additional duty of Public Information Officer. There was no slot for a PIO in the Table of Organization and Equipment of a Special Forces Group. But the Group Commander, Col. Robert W. "Woody" Garrett had determined that his best shot at even one star was good publicity for the Group.
This was so because the general who commanded the U.S. Army, Ryukyu Islands (USARYIS) Lt. Gen. Paul W. "Small Paul" Carraway hated, or was rumored to hate, combat troops. In 33 years of military service he had never, as Colonel Garrett put it "smelled smoke in combat."
Col. Garrett, on the other hand, had smelled a lot of it. In World War II he had at first commanded a company in the 6th Ranger Battalion, as did Bull Simons. Then, at age 27 Col. Garrett had been promoted to major and taken command of the battalion. This guy had been Bull Simons' commanding officer. To me he was a god. But a strange and whimsical god. Hence my being highjacked to Group Headquarters.
While I was cranking out press releases, my buddies and classmates from SFOC were going to Vietnam, on six-month temporary duty tours, and returning covered with glory.
Me, I was covered with a pair of novice parachutist wings and shame.
"I don't know what you're complaining about," Col. Garrett challenged me on one of those occasions on which I groveled and begged to be put on a team and sent in harms way. "You get more training than anybody."
This was true in a way. I got to do all the flashy stuff, so I could write it up for the 1st Group magazine, The Liberator, or for Pacific Stars and Stripes. I made night drops in Korea (frozen DZ, fractured coccyx) and water jumps into the East China Sea.
I sat in a rubber boat, with a full A-team, on the deck of the USS Perch, the Navy's troop carrier sub for the Pacific, at night under a quarter moon, and heard the horn blow and the command, "Dive! Dive! Dive! Dive! Dive!" followed by a frightful FRA-A-A-CK!!!" as the gills or whatever the hell they're called, opened, the water gurgled, the sub sank out from under us, and the froth rose around us.
We paddled hard, so the giant gloop of the sub going down wouldn't take us down with it. Then we rowed to Northern Okinawa for a simulated snatch of a nuclear scientist or some such. Phosphorescent plankton dripped off the paddles as we rowed for shore.
So, great! I was learning all the sneaky pete ways to infiltrate, but I was losing basic skills. My code speed was about eight words a minute and dropping fast. I hadn't fired a weapon of any sort since Bragg, much less learned how to repair foreign weapons.
It would have been some consolation if I believed that publicity would get Col. Garrett promoted, but I actually believed it would have the opposite effect.
Alas, Gen. Carraway, our rose-growing, administration-loving five-foot five and one-half foot general was never going to promote Col. Garrett or anyone like him to flag rank. Colonel Garrett's best shot would have been to keep a low profile and make sure his paperwork was perfect. This, as you know, is not the Special Forces way.
Consider, if you will, the event for which I had had the jump wings carved from ice, our formal ball. This event, so far as I could determine, had no function other than to convince Gen. Carraway that the officers of Special Forces were not thugs and snake-eaters, but were in fact perfect little gentlemen, patiently serving their time, dotting their I's and crossing their T's.
We had the ice-wings and the cake. The officers wore mess whites and the ladies long gowns. We raised our glasses in formal toasts. We put on innocuous skits. We danced the night away. Indeed, it all went perfectly until the general, well pleased so far, left at ten-thirty, so as to be up early the next morning to cultivate his roses. He was most displeased, however, to discover an SF captain and an SF major, both drunk as lords, in their beautiful mess whites, duking it out in the parking lot.
Both were transferred to the 503d the next day, but the damage had been done.
Parenthetically, the 503d had not yet been redesignated the 173d Airborne Brigade. It was formally known by the cumbersome title The First Airborne Battle Group, 503d Infantry Combat Team, Reinforced (Separate). I once heard a Marine lieutenant ask an officer from the 503d, "Okay, SF has Airborne in parentheses after their designation, and they yell "Airborne! Airborne!" on their runs. What do you guys yell, "Separate! Separate!"
Jocks and Engineers
Col. Garrett had promised he would only keep me in the PIO slot for six months, then put me on a team bound for Vietnam. But to me six months was an eternity. Most of the junior officers in SF had a couple of years in a TO&E Airborne unit, either the 82d or the 101st. Most were OCS guys with enlisted time. Most were jocks, engineers, Rangers. And they were going to Vietnam and returning covered with bronze and silver stars, CIBs, Vietnam jump wings, Montagnard bracelets.
I was none of that. I was a ROTC kid with a degree in journalism who had come to SF from a basic training center. I was on fire to prove myself.
And they wanted me to go to Taipei to buy Christmas cards for the Group.
That's right, Taipei for Christmas cards. We'd been running a joint exercise with the Chinese Special Forces on Taiwan. Some of our best teams had been running around in the hills for three months. Col Garrett and selected members of the Group staff were going over for the critique and I was to accompany them.
Printing was cheap on Taiwan. The combined Officers and NCOs Wives Clubs had put together a project to get knockout Christmas cards for the Group, and as assistant adjutant I was to be the project officer. I was delighted with the opportunity to go to Taiwan, but Jesus! Christmas cards?
The wives had come up with four designs and I had to narrow their choice to one.
I can only remember two of them now. One was a gag card, a cartoon Santa Claus going down the chimney wearing a green beret and a bellicose expression, carrying an alice pack full of automatic weapons, old rifles with long bayonets, and grenade launchers. The other was midnight blue, with a four-pointed gold star and the words "PEACE…Our Profession" in Olde Englishe letters. I had to pick one, from a consensus of the senior NCOs.
The consensus of the senior NCOs was that they didn't need to be bothered with this shit. My favorite reaction was from the Charlie Company sergeant major. "What the fuck is this?" he snarled, waving the midnight blue card. "'Peace…Our profession' my ass. You get a card that says, 'War…Our Profession", and I'll buy that son of a bitch."
"Not really in keeping with the spirit of Christmas, Smaj," I said.
He gave me a look that made the utterance of the sentence, "Who gives a shit?" completely unnecessary.
As far as I know nobody did, give a shit that is, except the wives clubs. I certainly didn't. And I don't think the matter weighed heavily on Col. Garrett's agenda.
Too Much Accident Area
These things were on my mind as I drove my rusted old Rambler to my home in beautiful Awase Meadows. My wife and I lived in a virtual cartoon of suburbia in the hills overlooking an expanse of paddy-diked rice fields, and beyond them the coastal strip of highway one, with its 35 mph island-wide speed limit and its signs. One said "FOLDING SCREEN" on one side, but "FLODING SCREEN" on the other. My personal favorite was "TOO MUCH ACCIDENT AREA-FUTENMA POLICE DEPARTMENT." Every bar on the island had a sign that said, "All under 21-No stay!"
Most of my classmates at SFOC had come to Okinawa together to staff the newly formed Delta Company of 1st Group. Those of us who were married had found housing together in newly and oddly constructed off-base housing. Across the street were Tom Kiernan and his wife, Grace. I hadn't known Tom well at Bragg, but we'd come to Oki on the same flight. Tom had come to SF from the 101st. He was a Ranger.
He was pulling into his driveway on a popping Kawasaki street bike as I pulled into mine in the Rambler. He swung off he bike, tall, angular, with narrow shoulders, an impressive schnoz, quite Roman in fact, and high cheekbones. I dismounted from the Rambler, being careful not to dislodge any big flakes of rust. My car was rotting from beneath in the salty air of Okinawa.
"Hey there, Mr. PIO," Tom called. "What's shakin'?"
"I'm going to Taiwan," I said.
"Neato!" he replied. "I'm going to Vietnam."
"Go fuck yourself," I responded cheerfully.
My contact on Taiwan was Bill Rovan, another classmate who had been assigned first to Okinawa, then selected to be Executive Officer of the resident team on Taiwan.
It took all of two hours to transact my business in Taipei. I would monitor the critique, but basically I was through.
The debrief, at least what I saw of it, was nothing like what I expected. I never saw a map, chart, or graph. I have to assume that the teams and staff sections held their own, where those things were in evidence. But I was in bloused khakis with Col. Garrett, and his contact was Gen. Chao, who, as they used to say back in Oklahoma, "put on the dog."
With us it was all Chinese modern décor, padded chairs at coffee tables, with chilled rolled wash clothes on a platter, to cut the heat of the day. "Tea or coffee? Hors d'ouevre?"
An L or T Configuration
I learned that all things had not gone as planned throughout the exercise and many valuable lessons were learned thereby. For instance, at that time the standard SF way of lighting a drop zone for a night drop was to fill number ten cans, the kind that are used to pack large quantities of vegetables, stewed tomatoes and the like, for mess halls, half full of sand and gasoline and laid out in an L or T configuration with another offset to show the direction of the wind.
What the Americans did not know was that Taiwan had a large number of brick factories and these brick factories had their chimneys laid out in L and T configurations, resulting in the American teams being dropped more or less at random all over the island. The methods they used to get from where they landed to their assigned areas were many and varied, but often involved the use of taxicabs.
The conversation of the higher commanders at that coffee meeting was earnest and serious, but I couldn't understand any of it. There was an exchange of really fancy plaques.
One thing I did learn though, was that there was going to be a friendship jump the following morning. Then we adjourned for a twenty-five course Chinese dinner for about five hundred, everybody who had participated in the exercise and everyone who had bought Christmas cards. This was followed by truly amazing acrobats.
"Hey, Bill," I said after the acrobats. "I'm hurtin' for a pay jump. How about getting me on that manifest?"
"Sure," said Bill. "Got any fatigues?"
I shook my head.
"I'll loan you a pair of cammies."
Quasimodo With a Hernia
This was before the Agency ordered fatigues for us in the tiger-striped pattern, so the cammies Bill loaned me were in the Sears Roebuck woodland pattern. That afternoon we went by his team house and he got them out of his locker. I was four or five inches taller than Bill. They were tight and I couldn't blouse the trouser legs, but they would serve. There was a similar problem with the chute.
These were standard U.S. Army T-10s, but the straps had been cut down and sewed down for the smaller Chinese jumpers. I couldn't let the straps out far enough for a comfortable fit. In the whole rig I looked like Quasimodo with a hernia.
That afternoon Rovan delivered me to the flight line, squeezed into his cammies, the legs hanging even with my boot tops. All the Americans who had participated in the exercise were drawn up in ranks and I fell in on the back end. A couple of ROC C46s were parked beside the strip. So was a big pile of T-10 assemblies; chutes, reserves, and kit bags. One rank at a time we drew our rigs, chuted up and were organized into sticks. It was the very definition of a Hollywood jump, no rucks, no weapons, no wind.
Nonetheless the old adrenalin surged. I was thrilled at the prospect of jumping a C46. This was the aircraft that had flown paratroopers to Sicily, to Normandy, and which had flown the Hump to drop supplies to teams fighting the Japanese in China and Burma. No matter how goofy I looked or felt this was a thrill I would remember and savor.
I didn't know anybody on the airplane, but they were fun to watch. For one thing, even though I didn't know them, they all knew each other. They had been running around in the woods for three months, and for the most part hadn't seen anyone but their own team and the Chinese acting as their guerrillas. They were choked with war lies, and could hardly wait to compare notes about the exercise. Most jumps are pretty intense, but there was a party atmosphere. The aircraft was filled with chatter and raucous laughter.
Then someone yelled, "Hey! Who's the jumpmaster?" We all looked around, but nobody pled guilty. It wasn't a problem. I was one of perhaps three guys on the plane who wasn't jumpmaster qualified. Finally somebody else yelled, "Let Major Peters do it. He's the tallest man on the aircraft."
A tall major, about 6'6" stumbled to the front of the plane and made the stand up motion. He didn't say anything. We stood up and he crooked his finger and tugged at an imaginary static line. We hooked up and checked our static lines without command. He patted his reserve and we checked our gear and the pack of the man ahead.
Finally he cupped a hand to his ear and called "Sound off for equipment check!" The guy at the end of the stick called out "OKAY!" and slapped the guy in front of him on the ass. The call rippled forward without numbers, because no one had the slightest idea of his number in the stick. Major Peters moved into the door. There was no grabass now. It was showtime.
Blue Above, Green Below
The light winked green. Major Peters disappeared. The stick began its slow shuffle toward the door, left foot leading, stomping, gathering speed like a train leaving the station. The guy in front of me disappeared and I wheeled into the door. Blue above, green below. Lung Tan Drop Zone was like a pool table the size of Rhode Island, a huge flat manicured lawn.
I vaulted up and out and felt the four little pops on my back that told me the rig was open. I looked up into a perfect green canopy with the sun shining through it. It seemed only a moment later that the ground rose and I hit and rolled, one of my few perfect parachute landing falls.
I got out of the rig and stood up straight for the first time in about an hour. It felt good. My jump pay for the next three months was assured, and that felt good too. I rigger-rolled my chute and put the assembly in the kit bag, shouldered it and walked to the turn-in point, feeling loose.
I expected to hook up with Rovan and get ready to go back to Oki. But we were assembled in ranks again, and a small Chinese general came out, and made a ringing speech about how we were all going to the Mainland together. "After you, my dear Alphonse," was the thought that went through my mind.
Then the general went down the line and put Chinese wings on us all. I could think of nothing as the general approached but the utter glee I felt that for a brief time at least my shirt was going to be more gaudy than Kiernan's. The fact that it meant not a goddam thing only added to my pleasure.
Tom stepped out of his house to greet me when I drove the rusty Rambler into my gravel drive. Apparently he was just in from the field. He wore filthy fatigue pants, flip-flops, and a home-died green t-shirt. His face and hands were still covered with green greasepaint. He held a beer in one hand. His team was just about ready for deployment. I approached him, smiling, chest out, Chinese wings gleaming. He looked at me and said, "You son of a bitch!"
I was happy.
Jim Morris is a former Special Forces officer who covered eight wars for SOF in the 80's. His books, "War Story" and "Fighting Men" are in print from St. Martin's. His novel, "Above and Beyond" is newly published by realwarstories.com. St. Martin's will re-issue the memoir of his SOF days, "The Devil's Secret Name" in December 2004.