11 July 2009

FIRST SERGEANT LEE

The flight to An Hoa lasted about 10 minutes. The LZ was on the south end of the runway. As I left the bird, a Marine directed me to the Ops bunker.

From there, I began my trek into the maze that was the combat base. There were rows upon rows of strongback tents, wooden frames designed to fit the standard General Purpose tent. They were built on stilts approximately 4 feet above the ground—a necessity to allow air flow, drainage during the wet season, and rodent control. The side walls were 8 feet high—the bottom four feet were plywood and the top four feet were screened. Three or four light bulbs provided lighting. A boardwalk of pallets connected the strong backs to dirt roads that ran through the combat base.

Strong backs were used for billeting and for offices. Other offices were in prefabricated bunkers. A frame made of 12 x12 supports that were 12 feet by 20 feet, and then walled and ceilinged with 2 x 12 boards. The floor was three-quarter inch plywood. Once set in place, the bunker would be sand-bagged. The S-4 bunker had approximately 25,000 sandbags for protection: walls were 6 sandbags deep, from the ground to the roof level. Three layers of sandbags were placed on the roof, then a layer of steel runway matting followed by three more layers of sandbags, another layer of matting and a final three layers of sandbags.

Charlie Company’s office was in a strong back on the battalion street, three rows down from the main supply route (Main Street An Hoa.) Office furniture was field desks and camp stools. A field desk was a 4 x 4 x 4 “suitcase.” One side could be removed and attached to the box (that contained drawers) to form a desk.

As you entered the office, the First Sergeant’s desk was on the left. In front of the desk, he had had the troops paint a pair of yellow (properly, “gold,” because as one of our Jodie chants says, “Marine Corps colors are scarlet and gold…”, but we’ll go with yellow) footprints. Any graduate of MCRD Parris Island or MCRD San Diego will know the purpose of those footprints. They are a recruit’s first sight at a Recruit Depot.

As a new recruit leaves the bus, he or she is herded to rows of yellow footprints, heels together and feet at a 45 degree angle, the first position of “Attention.” And that is what the First Sergeant had in mind.

As I entered the office, First Sergeant Lee was hunched over the desk, signing the Skipper’s signature to the Unit Diary, then the principal daily personnel document in the Marine Corps. I entered and positioned myself on the footprints. “Just a minute, Marine,” the First Sergeant growled without looking up. “Be with you in a minute.” A couple of the clerks were grinning ear-to-ear.

As he finished the Diary, he yelled “Brown, get this over to S-1.”

PFC Brown took it and “got.”

“Now, Marine, what can I do. . . my Gawd in heaven, Lieutenant, just look at you!”

He was looking at a 6’2” Marine who weighed 118 pounds (down from 171 in December). My helmet cover was faded, muddy, and covered with the black print of my “zap number” (M6086), blood type, and my short-timer’s calendar. My flak jacket was faded, ripped, and most of the plates were bunched over my right kidney. My towel was around my neck, and under my flak jacket I wore the faded green T shirt I had worn since 23 December. My rifle was clean, but my utility trousers were still wet and muddy to the knees and my jungle boots were muddy.

“Morning, First Sergeant.” [The Army calls the unit First Sergeant the “top kick” or “top” for short. No good Marine First Sergeant will tolerate that. “A ‘top’ is a goddam kid’s toy! I’m the First Sergeant!”]

“Well, damn, Lieutenant. You are a sight! Johnson, scoot down to Supply and get the Lieutenant a clean set of dungarees.”

“Which Johnson, First Sergeant? Light green Johnson or dark green Johnson?”

First Sergeant Lee had about 21 years in the Corps. He was one of those pioneers who had entered the Marine Corps at about the time that President Truman had issued the Executive Order which desegregated the Armed Forces.

Serving with Marines such as Sergeant Major Edgar Huff (the first black Sergeant Major in the Marine Corps) and Sergeant Major Gilbert H. “Hashmark” Johnson as mentors and role models, First Sergeant Robert E. Lee was one of those giants who helped mold both the modern Marine Corps and the America we know today. (“Giant,” you ask? Well Hashmark Johnson served in two wars, three branches of service, and for 32 years, half of which were in a segregated Armed Forces. Two years after his death from a heart attack, the Montford Point facility at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, which had been the segregated “black boot camp” during WWII, was renamed Camp Gilbert H. Johnson, the first military installation to be named after an African-American. I’d say that qualifies for “Giant.”)

And First Sergeant Lee’s first maxim was “I ain’t got ‘black Marines’ or ‘white Marines.’ All I have are ‘green Marines.’”

But I digress. “Light green” Johnson took off.

“Thompson, you get over to the shower point and tell them the Lieutenant will be there in five minutes.” He shook his head. “Now, Sir, let’s get you squared away.”

Within an hour, I was showered and shaved (cold water, but who cared), had new, clean clothes and had had my first real meal in over a month. (There was a huge sign on the mess hall bunker—in scarlet and gold, naturally—listing the hours of operation, followed in large letters by “MARINES IN FROM THE FIELD—ANY TIME.”)

I returned to the office, ready to get to work. “What should I do, First Sergeant,” I asked?

“Well, Sir. Why don’t you go over to the BOQ tent (Bachelor Officers’ Quarters) and take a nap? Maybe write a letter home?” [Interpreted, he was saying “Everything is under control. Don’t try to fix what ain’t broke.”]

Hmmmmm. Not a bad idea.

The only other officer in the BOQ was Lieutenant Jim Webb, a platoon commander in Delta Company. We introduced ourselves and settled in for the afternoon. I explored the Q, noting many jagged shrapnel holes which were circled and dated—reminders of rocket and mortar attacks on An Hoa. Suddenly, I missed my nice safe hole out in the Arizona.

What would tomorrow bring?

5 comments:

Reformed Catholic said...

Jim Webb the future Senator ??

Mac said...

One and the same.

Reformed Catholic said...

Cool ...

GM Roper said...

Mac, I can't tell you how much I enjoy your stories. As Mustang will probably tell you, I spent my entire Army career '69 through Christmas Eve '70 at Fort Polk and Fort Benning. Dad was shot at a number of times (WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Grandad in WWI, and WWII including 2.5 years as a POW in the Philippines and Great Grand Dad the Indian wars and Spanish American War) and said he took a dim view of people trying to kill him. So, real stories from real heroes such as you and Mustang (whose Revolutionary War exploits are legendary in the Corps) are so great to hear.

Leslie said...

I would agree with GM. It is very interesting to read real stories from the people who lived them. Thank you for sharing them.