Monthly Archives: August 2015


“….Uncle knew things happened in the field that shouldn’t make the reports.  Every unit had secrets, because all of us got caught in actions that were confusing, at best.  He understood we’d all face our guilt soon enough, so there was no point in exposing events that would be used against us.  Uncle would talk to any man he thought a little too trigger-happy, and if he thought the man was unstable, he wouldn’t disgrace him.  Out of respect for any man who pushed himself hard enough to be stationed in our camp, he’d discreetly transfer him to a less aggressive outfit.  That kind of respect, coming from such an officer, assured him of our confidence and obedience in all areas….”

“….If the media got wind of what went on out there, the word ‘atrocity’ would be spread over the headlines.  Every small unit soldier would be up on charges.  The very nature of Vietnam provoked firefights that afterward seemed senseless, and actually looked as if we targeted women and children.  Uncle understood this, and never condemned a man for the violence that surfaced in a violent land.  Not that he approved of cruelty or criminality, but he understood treacherous and hostile civilians, heavily armed soldiers, and fear were a very bad mix.  Many noncombatant officers and officials were eager to get their names known, and if that meant hanging a soldier, they wouldn’t hesitate.  The military is not immune to the American drive for fame, and considering the mood of America at the time, charging a soldier with atrocity was an opportunity for a name….”

“….I can’t say how many men owed their lives to Uncle, at least a dozen guys while I was with him.  I was one of them.  He was a natural soldier.  He would go out of his way to help a new man adjust, when they first came in.  He didn’t load it off on the sergeants.  He gave straight talk about the reality of Nam, things the manual couldn’t, or wouldn’t mention.  He went so far as to give a new man a little slack in his first firefight, but on experienced men, he could be a son of a bitch, convinced, as he was, that veterans should do more in the field.  Once a man had been out with Uncle, he had better be willing to carry his end, and more.  Uncle was not an officer who was afraid of work.  He was right down there with us, covered in shit and calluses.  No matter how much combat experience you had, Uncle always knew something you didn’t….”


“….Wilson spoke with a powerful baritone voice that was decidedly southern, in origin.  He was the only black officer in our camp.  He had immense calloused hands that seemed uncomfortable holding papers.  On meeting, he shook with an unexpected gentleness.  He was over six feet and easily two twenty.  A typical Beret; with well developed chest and arms.  His eyes, being deep set, made him appear intense and hostile at times, but he wasn’t.  A beaming smile and an air of good humor offset that impression.  He frequently laughed, and that deep voice of his reverberated in our bunker….”

“….It was Jim, and his uncontrollable sarcasm, that re-nicknamed Wilson from ‘Turf’ to ‘Uncle’.  We’d been out for forty hours, and were trying to call for an artillery strike to slow our pursuers.  Twice, the coordinates we gave were misunderstood, or taken down wrong.  On the last request, they came close to hitting us.  We had to scramble for our lives, with our own shells pursuing us.  That’s when our team overheard Wilson cursing an officer in the FDC (Fire Direction Center)….”

“….Wilson thundered into the mike, “Listen, you dumb fuck, get your superior on the line…”

“….There was a short silence, followed by a disdainful voice, dripping with authority and indignation at the inconvenience, “This is Lt. Colonel Rand.  I advise you to watch your language.  I’ll not tolerate my men being cursed at, or insulted…”

“….Rand, this is Tom Wilson.  Your trained ape almost killed us, twice.  Retrain your men, Rand, and keep them off the phones until they know how to read a map.  Get your men to pay attention and stop fucking around.  Now, you take down these coordinates, and try to get them right, Lt. Colonel, Sir!” Wilson hissed.  His tone was malevolent, as if he was on the brink of control.  He repeated the coordinates, without waiting for Rand’s response….”

“….Whoever Lt. Colonel Rand was, when he heard Wilson he became cooperative, he even promised to handle it, personally.  We sat around glancing at each other, uncomfortably.  We’d seen Wilson angry a few times, but never like this….”

“….Thinking Wilson was still on the radio, Jim observed to Hogan and me, in a lowered voice not expecting to be overheard. “Ever notice the way black officers talk so respectful to their superiors, callin ‘em ‘Sir’ and all that other army kissin’ up bullshit?  I think they are a bunch of ‘Uncle Tom’s….”

“….The three of us snickered then felt embarrassed when we realized Paul and Uncle were also laughing along with Jim’s words.  After the awkwardness, all five of us relaxed.  Everyone laughed.  Only the four of us ever used the nickname to refer to him.  It tied us together.  We were his men, and we guarded his nickname, jealously.  Naturally, we never used it with him directly, but he was aware we referred to him as ‘Uncle’.  We were his team, and that made us special as far as we were concerned, and that was enough.  He was not only our CO; he was our battle leader, a man we trusted with everything.  In spite of the hardness and anarchy in us, we respected him enormously, and wanted him to respect us, in turn….”



“….We dragged our wounded.  There were six of us without wounds, and each one of us took a man instead of weapons.  We picked men we thought had a chance of surviving, and left four men behind.  They were so badly hurt, moving them would kill them.  Thanks to morphine, they never knew we’d abandoned them.  Of the twelve men who left the small hill, only four of us got through the gate alive.  We beat the attackers by less than twenty yards.  No sooner had we passed what was left of the camp gate, and the heavy machine guns roared reassuringly at the pursuing gooks.  A couple of guys helped us inside the camp.  They were quick to point out the irony; I’d been dragging a dead man.  I knew he was very much alive when we started.  I dropped him at the gate and retreated into the camp….”

“….I found a position in the firing line and awaited the assault.  It was not long in coming, and it came with unexpected ferocity.  It was our death knell.  A wall of explosions and men rammed into the gate, and it crumbled.  Both machine gun bunkers were silenced by rocket fire.  Every gunner was killed in the explosions.  Once the gate guns failed, the attacking troops were as stunned as we were.  They grew silent, shocked at their success.  We fell silent in disbelief.  In that momentary lull, we watched the enemy pour through the gaping hole in our defenses, and pause to savor their triumph.  They became a monster with a thousand faces.  We felt the leering malevolence, as they turned to face the forty American soldiers standing between them and victory.  Before they got their bearings, we opened fire with every weapon we had.  Since they were crowded into a small area, our fire was devastating.  In seconds, hundreds of them were on the ground, or reeling back out the gate from the concentrated volley.  It didn’t take them long to reform their ranks and charge back in, returning fire, driving us before them….”



“….Dragging our wounded and dumping gear, we hauled ass for the higher camp.  Explosive shells vibrated the ground with deafening power.  Throughout our scramble up that hill, we cursed and fought, and didn’t dare look back.  Each of us, I’m sure, expected at any moment to feel a bayonet.  Charlie was closing on us from behind.  We could hear his sandals shuffling closer.  Bullets were pelting the ground around us, and dirt flew into the air, coating us.  I didn’t dare stop to see how many times I’d been hit.  Like the others, I kept dragging my man….”

“….The urge to scream and drop everything, and race to save our terrified necks, grew strong.  Bullets showered the ground.  We strained against the instinctive individual dash to safety.  It became almost overpowering; almost, but not quite.  Something else was with us on that hill, memories of a barking D.I. at Bragg, trying to bugger us with live rounds, and screaming ‘stick together!’, or knowing this bloody pulp you were dragging was the guy who split his last smoke with you, one night in some God forsaken paddy.  Whatever it was, we could not abandon our wounded to save ourselves.  It was that unspoken thing that overpowers the fear of death.  A combination of loyalty, courage, determination and honor, all rolled into self-respect and anger.  It’s that soldier thing.  It occasionally surfaces under extreme circumstances, and binds soldiers together, whether they live or die….”