06 July 2009

LEADERSHIP IN THE LITTLE THINGS

As we recovered from the night of June 10-11, 1969, morale was low. We had suffered two killed in action, and the strength of the NVA attack was unexpected. The medevac birds were in the zone by 0700, and knowing that our WIA were on their way to good medical care helped a little.

At about 0900, Frank ordered me to take a patrol to our east to see what was out there. We moved cautiously, out of tactical concern and simple physical exhaustion. About a click to the east, we found several rows of packs which looked as if the NVA had formed into a battalion formation of three ranks.

We spent time looking through the packs for intelligence materials and then I allowed the troops to look for souvenirs. Afterwards, we piled them up and used a couple of flare grenades to burn them. At about 1145, Frank called me on the radio and told me to make sure I was back in the lines by 1215.

We headed back across the paddies and entered the lines just as a CH-46 landed in the LZ. Marines in mess whites began to off-load vacuum cans and to set up a mess line. We later learned that at about 0830, Col. Riley had called the Battalion S-4 and ordered him to get a hot meal out for the troops. Now, that is not a lot of time, but the Four got it done.

The menu was steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, green peas, and white bread. The steaks were from canned “B” rations, but it was steak. Because we lived on C-rats, no one carried a mess kit, but that was no problem. We tore up C-rat cartons to use as plates and nearly everyone had a knife of some kind (bayonet, K-Bar, or some other form of sheath knife) and our plastic C-rat spoons. It was a messy meal—and the best I have ever eaten. Morale sky-rocketed.

I suppose many folks will think that I exaggerate. How could canned steaks do that? I guess you had to be there. These men had lived on the same monotonous menu for weeks. They had been in contact with the enemy for several days, and they had fought a monumental fight just hours before. Anything different was exciting. Col. Riley knew that and it was his leadership in the little things that mark him in my mind as one of the finest leaders I ever knew.

That evening we stayed in a battalion perimeter. At dusk, I was standing along the edge of my lines, just looking out into the paddy. Suddenly, to our southeast, the sky lit up in what appeared to be sustained yellow heat lightning. Suddenly there was a “swoosh-Swoosh-SWOOSH-THUD” about a foot to my right front. I looked down and saw a metal ball. I bent and touched it and jerked away. It was painfully hot.
At the same time, the ground shook and a rumble filled the air. I had just observed an Arc-Light.

Arc-Light was an Air Force tactic in which three B-52 bombers, flying in a trail formation, dropped their bomb-loads by radar from 25,000 to 30,000 feet. The bomb load per aircraft was 108 five hundred pound bombs. (That is 27 tons per aircraft, 81 tons per 3 ship mission.) The first time the folks in the impact area knew they were being targeted was when the first bomb detonated. An Arc Light strike could obliterate an area 1.2 miles long by .6 miles wide. It was awesome.

Had I stood but a foot forward and a foot to the right, it would have been lights out for me. And I didn’t give a damn!

3 comments:

Rev Kim said...

It doesn't surprise me at all that those fine, courageous, strong men who put their lives on the line for us, would find some happiness in a bad steak. Would that we would all show such gratitude, in all times and circumstances.

Leslie said...

Riveting re-telling of your experience. Col. Riley showed excellent leadership in this situation. At times, it is the little things that make all the difference.

I agree with Rev. Kim's statements above...and would that we all would show more gratitude toward those strong and courageous people who serve to protect our country...they are the most overlooked, yet we owe them so much more.

LaundrymanSon said...

Dear Mac and all, my father--Bill Riley-- passed away on July 25. Looking for signs of him on the internet brought me to your blog. Thanks for the sharing. My Dad will be buried at Arlington on October 13, 2011. http://tributes.com/show/William-E-Riley-92009267

God Bless.

John Riley