FORT LEWIS, WASHINGTON

 

 

May 13, 1968 I reported to the Lopez Canyon armory of Troop C.I had been transferred by Captain Moen to split up Pixley and me.It just so happened that Captain Moen was transferred also and so we faced each other again that morning as we waited on buses to take us to the airport for transport to Fort Lewis, Washington.He called me into the office and told me that because he had transferred me I had the option of going back where I came from to A Troop.He said, however, that he needed me and would make me a sergeant if I stayed to run his mortar section.My Platoon leader was in the room and heard him promise me so I went for it.The only promotions before this had been among the First Sergeants drinking buddies.

We were bused to the charter terminal at LAX where we waited for our plane.Bobby Kennedy happened to be in town campaigning for president and was at the terminal at the same time shaking hands with the departing guardsmen while the cameras rolled.I shook his hand but it was the old "dead fish" grip.What a wimp.He was shot and killed several weeks later in Los Angeles by Sirhan Sirhan.

Arriving at Fort Lewis, we were housed in the three story barracks normally used for basic trainees.My platoon had the top floor and I shared a room with another of the Sgts whose name I canít recall now.It was the typical Army†† dorm with steel sprung cots and thin mattresses and two of us to a room.We were still at about 80% strength due to medical releases and deferments and were using M-l rifles instead of M-16s but they kept promising that things would be taken care of and we would leave for Vietnam within 60 days.

We started training around the Fort in the beautiful rain forests.The mortar range was really pretty and green since it hadn't been used for years.I was made the range safety NCO and instructor and we amused us shooting the trees†† down†† range without†† really†† accomplishing anything.After a while it became evident that we were just not going to be in a position to ship over to Vietnam in 60 days and some of the guys started complaining to the inspector general and congressmen and anybody else who would listen about the lack of real training.

It was about this time that the 3rd Armored Division was rotated home from Germany to its home station at Fort Lewis.Due to all the bad feelings about training, we were attached to the 3rd Div.For training purposes.The difference in quality was remarkable.The Officers 6f the 3rd Div. were just coming from a combat ready zone and knew how to train as if it meant something.It also brought an influx of Regular Army Officers into our vacant positions and gave us a look at how it should be done.

It was during this time that the famous "shoot out" at the mortar range took place.Capt. Moen and the CO from A Trp.stopped by to see how our training was coming (ha ha) and decided to have a shoot off between the mortar crews of their respective companies†† I was the range safety NCO but gunned for Capt. Moen as we tried to destroy a tree downrange in three shots.The captains were going to drop the rounds themselves to show their men they could do anything.Our ammo bearer was a Jewish kid named Jay Mullin who was a real Sad Sack that nobody else wanted; I guess thatís why I took him.He prepared the three rounds and after handing the Capt. two in one direction,reversed the third forsome unknown reason.Well, a mortar round has a pointed end and fins on the other so itís hard to mistake which is which even in the dark.I looked up from the gun sight in time to see the fuse end of the third round going into the barrel and I yelled and started running for my life.The rounds are supposed to be safe when dropped on the fuse, butÖ††

Needless to say it didn't go off, in fact Capt. Moen never let go of it and took it back out and dropped it in fin first.The furor that erupted over that incident led to a congressional investigation.I had to go to the Div. Commanders office and deny that two men had been killed and others seriously wounded by the exploding round as some parents told their congressmen.The result was that Capt. Moen was transferred to the 3rd Cav. and we got a Reg.Army CO.It was really a blessing.The first opportunity I had I went to talk to the new Capt. He was amazed at all of the things we didnít have that were available to us.I can't remember his name but I do remember his fairness in dealing with our wacko National Guard men.

About this time we did have a guy killed at a night exercise in the forest.He was manning a machine gun set up on the inside of a curve to guard the road.An APC (Armored Personnel Carrier) came down the road and didnít see him and cut the corner, running over his chest and shoulder.On its way back the men in the APC found him and were trying to get him into the APC for quick transport to a nearby hospital when the Lt.arrived in his jeep.The Lt.said not to touch him because he was going to call in a helicopter to transport him out.The only trouble was he needed the Officer of the Dayís permission to get a Helicopter and he was at the club and couldn't be found for half an hour Then the helicopter refused to land in the forest so an ambulance was dispatched from the Fort,40 minutesaway.The kid drowned in his own blood as his buddies watched helplessly.The ineptness of the leaders was once again affirmed.

With all these different events confirming the fact that we were not going to survive Vietnam, the Guardsmen banded together and hired a lawyer and sued the. Federal Government for breach of contract.The enlistment papers we all signed stated no active duty except in case of declared war or national†† emergency.The First Sgt. explained that such was no longer the case, that the wording had been changed and they just didnít bother to tell us.It looked like a good lawsuit so we all signed the paper, hoping that our unit might not have to go after all.

It had its effect on the Army.They rallied their big guns against us as we made the evening news with Walter Cronkhite†† and became known all over the nation.The Commanding General of Fort Lewis called us all into the base theater, NCOs and Officers first and then enlisted men, to tell us that it was all futile and that we were headed for Vietnam to fight and die for our country.The enlisted men booed him right off the stage and out the door.He then cancelled all our privileges on the base for a time just to show us.

An Idaho Guard engineer unit moved into the barracks next to us and held a battalion formation right under my window.The Batt. Commander called us cowards and other things and forbade his troops from having anything to do with us while they were at Fort Lewis.The few times we did work together on exercises they proved that they knew their stuff.It was sad to hear that they had gone to I Corp†† in northern South Vietnam and suffered severe casualties since they were all from small towns and many were related to each other.It must have rung hollow in their parentsí ears that they went bravely into the"Cannons Mouth" while we dissenters from Burbank stayed home alive.

A short time later our unit orders were in fact cancelled.We were not going to Vietnam as an armored unit.We were, however, eligible†† to be taken as individuals on the levee system of replacements.My name was on the first list since I had a critical MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) or Infantry Sgt. Itís always nice to be at the top of the list but in this case††††

Janet had moved up to join me in July and had to live in the worst apartment you can imagine.It was a converted motel with paper-thin walls and squeaky bedsprings.She was pregnant with Nikki and was taking care of Jonette who was only a year old.It wasn't easy on her but with all the pressure I faced everyday at the base I really needed her there to hold on to at night.Weekends we drove around Olympia and the area. - It really was a beautifully green place and so different from Los Angeles.We used to watch the unlimited hydroplane races every Sunday on our little B/W TV.It got so we even knew the drivers of the boats by name after a while.She really was a trooper, being stuck there every day without a car to go anyplace.

I was supposed to leave Thanksgiving Day for my 30days leave before shipping to Vietnam on January 1st of 1969.I was still an acting Sgt. and didn't have four years in the Guard yet so the Army wouldn't pay to have Janet and our baggage shipped home.With the thought in mind that I had been promised at the beginning and had done the work all along without the pay, I went to see the Division Commander.He asked me why I thought I had been passed over for promotion and he chuckled as I mentioned the lawsuit and my not being a drinker.But he called over to Squadron HO and talked to the Sergeant Major, telling him to give me a Sergeants Oral Board immediately and he personally wanted to see the results.I left Fort Lewis as a Sgt. E-5 and the Army paid to ship us home.We left the day before Thanksgiving and stopped at Fay and Norman Riggs house in Granite, Utah for Thanksgiving dinner(the same house we had spent out honeymoon in).

 

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