The National Guard Experience

Or: Sleep well tonight, Your National Guard is drunk!

 

Upon returning home from Germany in the summer of 1964 after spending 30 months as a Missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), I was bumming around my parents home contemplating starting classes at Glendale College and finding a job of some kind. I was driving an old '54 Mercury and had no money and things weren't looking all that great for me except that I was continuing my education and having a ball with all the lovely young ladies that seemed to sense my eligible bachelorhood as a challenge. My father, George (Jake), advised me of an upcoming exam for the Fire Department and asked me to take it. I think his exact words were; "Take it or move out!” But since he paid the dollar fee and supplied the transportation I felt obligated to at least give it a shot.

The day of the exam came in August of 1964, on a Saturday, and I drove down to Hollywood High School to join the others taking the test. When I got there the line of guys just waiting to take their turn was four wide and went completely around the block. As it turned out there were about 10,000 applicants and I got pretty discouraged in a big hurry. But being the obedient son and not wanting to move out of the comfort of living at home at the age of 23, I took my place in line and went inside. The test itself was l50 questions and we had three hours to take it, with a lady from the Personnel Department monitoring our every cough for signs of cheating. I thought the test was sort of simple, with pictures of wheels and how they should move, etc. I finished in about an hour and looked around to see how the others were doing and they were all still in the middle of the booklet and struggling. Not wanting to be the first one done I doodled in the book until someone else got up and turned in their test and then I got up and left thinking that I must have blown the whole thing because it seemed too easy.

When the test results came back I had placed 36th on the list and my ego was about to burst. All those men ahead of me had received l0 points Military credit which I didn't have. I was in the top 5 raw test scores. What a brain!

I decided that the $608 a month they offered to pay me was more than I had and I could always quit if I didn't like it. I was the 20th person appointed to the training academy on January 16. 1965, and was going through the Fire Academy and taking final exams at Glendale College at the same time. It then became quite evident that with the Vietnam buildup I might not finish the Academy before the Draft Board changed my classification from 2-S (Student) to 1-A (Plum) and send me off to war.

One of the men in my Ward (Congregation) had a buddy who played baseball with our church team and worked as a First Sergeant for the National Guard in Glendale. I made an appointment to see him and joined the Guard about a week after starting the Fire Academy. He seemed too eager to sign me up and made it sound like a real piece of cake. Being offered a choice of three different jobs in the Unit; Truck mechanic, Infantryman, or Mortarman, I knew I didn't want to get greasy or get shot at so it left me only one choice. I didn’t know what a Mortarman did but with the explanation that he hid behind the hill and lobbed shells over the heads of the frontline Infantry guys, I thought that sounded a lot safer than going one-on-one with bayonets in the trenches. I was happy to be a member of "Glendale's Own" l/l60th Infantry Battalion along with many guys that I knew in High School including Jim Mofhitz and Larry Kidder. (Jim had been my roommate at BYU in 1959)

I finished the Fire Academy and was sent to Fire Station l07 to get some field experience. I was only there one month before I entered Basic Training at Fort Ord, California on April 30th.There I was, 23 years old and having lived 2 years in Europe and traveled extensively, thrown in with a bunch of 18 year olds who had never been away from home before. I was like the old man of the group. The Platoon Sergeant met us at the bus station and welcomed us into the Army. We had to fill out some forms and a questionnaire about what we had done in our lives. I put down that I had been president of all my Sunday school classes, Patrol Leader in the scouts and anything else I could think of to make me sound like a leader, which of course I was. The Sergeant came up to me privately and said that he would like to have me lead his platoon but that there was someone else with prior military experience who traditionally would get the spot and so I was made the Armorer, in charge of the rifles (In my own room of course!). The drunken prior service guy lasted a week before they busted him and I became the Trainee Platoon Sgt.

I was the leader of the fifth platoon, C Company, 4th Battalion, 3rd Training Brigade. I made up cadence songs to sing as we marched back and forth to the different training areas, mostly about guys in the platoon. They seemed to like hearing their names shouted out so everyone joined in and we were the sharpest marching platoon in the company. I did my best at everything since it was an ego trip to show up those younger guys. The First Sgt. found out that I could type so I spent many hours in the office helping him instead of watching those famous VD movies you always hear about.

The eight weeks went quickly and at the close I was chosen "Outstanding Trainee of the Cycle" by the Officers and Sergeants of the company and presented a trophy at graduation by the Brigade Commander, Colonel Dieleman. Most of the guys in the company were from National Guard units with a lot of Eskimos from Alaska including one named Sylvester Snowball (for real!). Of the four awards handed out at graduation for excellence, all four went to Guardsmen and three of the four were Mormons. One of the Mormons from Utah bought some clippers and cut hair in the latrine for 75 cents a head and made close to a hundred dollars while we were there. Remember this because it plays a big part in my future storyline.

After graduation from Basic I went to Advanced Infantry Training to learn about mortars. Again I was chosen platoon Sgt. and given my own room but the personnel were different since most of them were regular army and from the south. We worked in teams of three guys and I was lucky to get two other guys that wanted to do their best. We ended up the crack team of the company because I and another guy maxed the mortar test and the third barely missed maximum because he panicked. I got little medals to wear that said expert in rifle, mortar, and pistol. Along with my blue Infantry scarf and all my medals, I cut a dashing figure when I returned home in September.

But before I return home to reality and work, let me tell about Survival, Escape and Evasion training. By some unreasonable mistake I had to do KP one night and got a greasy sliver of steel wool in my finger, which became infected. So I had to spend a couple of days in the infection ward at the Fort Ord Hospital along with the sexually promiscuous soldiers. Anyway I missed the POW camp training with my platoon and had to go alone with another company later.

My company had gotten together and made a pact that they wouldn't say a thing to the guards or interrogators at the POW camp. So there was this big guy from the south who used to sit around doing isometric exercises that they picked for the electric torture chair. He sat there and grinned at the cadre guards as they put electrodes on various parts of his body and shocked him. They finally had to quit because the voltages were becoming too dangerous. He just sat there and grinned. Anyway, I went through the course 2 days later with another company but my guys had clued me in as to what to do to stay healthy. They told me to get in the middle and shut-up. The first part of the course we were shown different style Vietnam huts and hidden caches and booby traps and instructed as to what to do if caught. The next phase they lined us up and turned us over to the "enemy" guards who were Sergeants returning from Vietnam combat duty. This is where being in the middle really counted as the guards started down the rows. They approached the guy next to me and punched him good in the gut and then kicked him until he returned to attention. Just as the guard finished with him the guy right in front of me made a wise crack and was beat to the ground with rabbit punches by the guard in my row. When he turned back around he hit the guy next to me on the other side. Boy did I escape that one by another's misfortune. Next we had to put our coats over our heads and duck walk about100yds to the compound. While we were duck walking some were being slapped in the head and back. I could hear them walking near me so I had to keep tense as if I was going to be hit at any moment. It was really tough on my body and reaching the compound was a small blessing.

We were forced to lie down on our backs and lift our feet six inches off the ground and hold them there. If they hit the ground you got kicked in the ribs. I was lucky enough to be near a wall and sort of rested my boots on the side of it. All the while this weird Asian music was playing over large speakers and guards were screaming. To be singled out and taken away usually meant something worse than what we were already doing so I tried to do everything right. It didn't work. I was taken away with my coat over my head for interrogation. Somewhere along that trek a voice whispered in my ear "don't worry Jake, it's almost over!" and I felt as if the weight of the world had been taken from my shoulders. I was lucky that my company was being used as guards because they had just survived the ordeal. All in all it was a frightening experience and one I didn't look forward to repeating. Its merit became obvious as the Vietnam War ended and very few enlisted men who were captured ever came out alive.

I returned home in September of 1965 to the Fire Department and having fun with the young ladies. One young lady stood out from the crowd. She had joined the Mormon congregation the day I got home from Germany and was the cutest thing I had ever seen. Her name was Janet Turner and I chased her around for over two years before she decided to marry me in December of 1966, but that's another story.

Life at the l/l60th was sort of like a fraternity. It was casual and not too serious. The only bivouac I can remember was an overnighter in the wash across from Magic Mountain and it was like the Boy Scouts; everything else was done in the armory building in Glendale.

Just before summer of 1966 I was transferred to an Armored Cavalry unit based in Burbank under the airport runway. Certain selected units of the National Guard had been designated as "Selected Reserve Forces" and brought up to full strength in men and equipment. The 1/18th Armored Cav. Was one such unit and I spent summer camp at Fort Irwin, just north of Barstow, riding around in an armored personnel carrier. I had a chance to return to Glendale at the end of summer but I thought to myself that riding was better than walking and chose to stay in Burbank. What a mistake!

I was assigned to A Troop with First Sgt. Jones, the drunk Indian, and there met Bruce Pixley who worked for General Telephone. Bruce and I paled around until after Vietnam when he moved out to Ventura and we sort of lost contact with each other. While we were in A Troop we were always together and scheming against the First Sgt. We soon became recognized as the best mortarmen in the Squadron and even though we were only PFC's we trained most of the other guys in how to use the 4.2 inch mortar.

The SRF became a pain in the butt because we had drills every other weekend and usually traveled out to Fort Irwin where our tanks were kept. Our Company Commander, Captain Ross Moen, was a real jerk (police officer, juvenile div). He had a real ego problem with leadership and how to motivate and control men. He tried to force his men to do things with punishment and they just undermined everything he did or said. Most of the guardsmen were in college and married and some even had their own businesses and therefore were not to be browbeaten into submission. Such treatment just caused them to concentrate their entire efforts in thwarting the military system. We called it "shamming" and to be a good shammer meant to get out of every detail by disappearing somewhere. Pixley and I were two of the best but nevertheless kept up our image by being the best mortarmen they had.

Our bi-weekly caravans to the desert became an update on the police shootings in the black ghetto area of Watts from some of the guys that worked that district. It was a six-hour trip each way and totally boring. One night at about1 a.m. we had just arrived and tried to settle in for a little sleep before training the next morning when the CO called a formation. Well, frankly nobody believed anything so stupid could really be happening so we just sort of shuffled out to see what it was all about. The good Captain Moen went into a raging fit and took us on a run off into the desert to punish us for being so slow. I was the company guide-on and carried the company flag, setting the pace for the Troop. After about 2 miles I decided that it was totally stupid and just dropped off to the side and started walking. Captain Moen started frothing at the mouth and screaming until someone else grabbed the flag and ran out to the front. I could have cared less. From that point on I had very little respect for any of the National Guard Officers and more or less trusted myself when it came to decisions about safety, etc.

We spent a lot of time and gasoline driving around the desert fighting imaginary enemies but any live firing was done on the range under strictly controlled circumstances. Many a night I spent following the dust of five or six tanks barely able to see their blackout cat eye lights. One night Sgt. Bentley was driving in convoy and ran off the road in the dust and hit a big rock, knocking the drive wheel and track off and stranding us until the next afternoon when a trailer came to haul us back to camp. We spent the day sunbathing with the lizards, 20 miles south of Death Valley. Another time in the heat of the day we stopped and rested with the temperature around 120 degrees and I stepped outside the vehicle to urinate and with the loss of water I doubled over in cramps. My first and only experience with heat cramps and I'm glad I haven't seen them since.

The only good times I can remember in the desert were sleeping out under a million-zillion stars and the swim party we had at lake Dolores, and of course driving a tank and almost running over Captain Moen and his jeep.

 

Pfc. Pixley & Pfc. Jacobsmeyer firing 4.2 inch Mortar at training exercise at Fort Irwin, California. (Note: starched fatigues in the desert)

 

It was during this bi-weekly schedule of convoying to Fort Irwin and running around the desert pretending to be soldiers that the news of our activation came. It was almost a relief since it meant that we would be sent to a real Army post and train with real equipment and ammo under real officers. Or at least that's what we thought.

Little did we realize just how far the Army would go to prove that its National Guard was up to snuff, even to the falsifying of medical and other records to show that we were well trained. Individually I think the Guardsmen were superior to any regular army personnel but we had no cohesiveness due to the terrible Officers the Guard had made in it’s OCS schools. We had nobody smart enough to bring the whole package together and therefore we would have been destroyed in Vietnam.

It was with these feelings that I faced activation to Vietnam.

 

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