Born: Florence, South Carolina, 1938 Served in Vietnam, U.S. Army II Field Force Artillery, 2nd Battalion 35th Field Artillery, 1966-67 Headquarters,Task Force South, 1969 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, 1970 II and III Corps, Artillery Forward Observer and Infantry Company Commander
From the Artist:
Retro-perspective views A combat commander doesn't have a best friend, or any friends. There is no one comrade who always shares your muddy hole in the jungle. Commanders have a different concept of friendship: a respect for those who served under their command.
Most of my guys were good kids serving their tour. It's regrettable that I can't remember their real names. There was never an accurate list of names in a combat unit, only various scraps of sodden paper. The official morning report chronicled the daily coming and going of soldiers, but not who was present for duty. Called the "foxhole strength," these are the faces of a unit. I still picture those faces clearly. I hope I'll never forget them as they were then. These are faces at the best they ever will be: bright, young, strong lights of an era.
I remember one kid, Fritz; his name is on the Wall. Fritz commanded my third platoon and sometimes was my second in command. NCOs like Fritz were known colloquially as "shake-and-bakes." A bright draftee would be sent to officer candidate school straight out of AIT and get an instant promotion to sergeant. Passing a test, however, did not always ensure that every shake-and-bake was capable of leadership.
As the war dragged on, experienced leaders were being devoured faster than they could be replaced. The army's answer was an accelerated program to develop junior NCOs to be combat team leaders. Unfortunately, there is a world of difference between a commander with years of training and combat experience and a junior NCO with less than a year in service. This was the failure of the politically mandated one-year tour of duty. The military was feeding on itself.
Fritz, distinguished at shake-and-bake and ranger school, landed without any experience in the company as a senior NCO. He wasn't a friend any more than any of the others. I was over thirty and on my third combat tour, and he, like most of the company, was still reaching for twenty.
We had a chieu hoi, an informer who told us about a large rice cache. This man couldn't pinpoint the location of the cache on a map and could only generally locate the area on the ground. I sent one platoon out to a blocking position. I planned to sweep down the blue line [creek] with the other two, pushing everything into the block. I would lead and Fritz was to bring up the rear.
The first platoon walked straight into a hidden enemy base camp guarding the rice cache and was chopped up badly. The second platoon went in to help them, while Fritz's third platoon swung around to flank the enemy, get more fire forward, and relieve the pressure. An inexperienced point man failed to see the signs of trouble until Charlie opened fire.
We were getting our casualties out, bringing in air support, and beginning to move when Fritz and another guy were shot. With my strongest platoon leader down, the platoon froze. No one gave a command. I moved to the third platoon. When I got to it, the platoon was still in a ditch, waiting for Fritz to tell them what to do. I went in to find the two men, and the platoon followed me. They just needed someone, anyone, up front.
Fritz had done a heroic thing but also a dumb thing. The platoon was his responsibility. He should have sent a couple of scouts ahead. He had learned to lead but he didn't live long enough to learn command.
I made the same mistake. The company was my responsibility. With Fritz gone, had I been hit the company might have also been stopped. What I should have done was to scream and shout, kick ass, and develop a new leader to move the platoon forward. Hindsight. There was so little depth of leadership by this stage of the war. It was my job to take care of these men. They were just kids off the block, good kids.
A soldier will perform miracles for you if he thinks you care. Make an effort to take care of him and he will walk through hell, not because he likes war or wants medals or because of orders, but because he is part of something larger, a unit. He wants to do a good job, as recognized by those around him. He wants to be respected and seen as valuable. I never saw so many good young men sacrifice so much for each other and for their units.