Monthly Archives: May 2011

Memorial Day Memories

Allow a post of personal privilege.

My Dad was a Navy vet of WWII, a “Tin Can Sailor” who served aboard a destroyer in the Pacific.  His ship narrowly avoided diving kamikaze aircraft off Okinawa and later sailed into Tokyo Harbor as part of the fleet that would accept Japanese surrender.  His ship was the 2nd in line and entered in full alert, the crew manning their battle stations, unsure if the promise of surrender was just a ruse.  Growing up, I remember well the Japanese carbines and bayonets he had returned with as souvenirs.

Upsala mapI also remember well the Memorial Day parades down main street of small town America in the days of Ike and Elvis and my dad’s snappy new Chevy Impala with air-conditioning and a continental kit on the trunk.  The American Legion led the way, bearing arms and carrying the flag, and there was my dad.  A church had a big patch of grassy lawn right next to the general store, and that’s where the Legion ended up for a twenty-one gun salute.

“Ready, arms!”

“Ready, aim!”

“Ready, fire!”

Three times the squad fired blanks into the sky over the roof of the general store.  As soon as the Legionnaires would march away, the young boys, including my brother and me, would rush onto the lawn to claim the spent shell casings.  One of those boys I grew up with would later became a Major General.

I ended up a buck sergeant, E-5, and I spent Memorial Day 1970 in base camp near An Khe in the central highlands of Vietnam, waiting impatiently for the last couple days to pass before my return to Minnesota at the completion of my tour of duty.  There would be plenty of friendly faces to greet my return: my fiancé (we’ll celebrate our 40th anniversary in a few weeks), Mom and Dad, my two younger sisters, but not my brother who was embarking on his own tour of duty in Vietnam.  Our reunion would come later.

I remember my arrival in Fort Lewis, Washington, and the call home.  Mom couldn’t talk, she just sobbed.  After preliminary processing, I went to the 24-hour steak house and ate my welcome-home steak alone.  After more processing, I was finally on my way to Sea-Tac airport and a standby ticket on a Northwest jet to Minneapolis.  The plane was barely half-full, and a young woman asked to sit next to me although she could have sat anywhere.  She bought me a drink and thanked me for my service and listened to my stories until I drifted off to sleep.

Readjustment was not difficult for me, but jet lag was.  I remember waking up about 4 am and riding a bike around the deserted streets of Hopkins, Mn where I was staying with my fiancé who lived with her sister.  The sunrise was glorious as the neighborhood came alive.  But I was angry later when we visited a Sears store, and I saw plastic guns, replica M-16s, in the toy department.  War was not a game for kids to play.

I also remember two events back home in Upsala.  Dad took me to a regular meeting of his Lion’s Club.  When I was introduced, they gave me a standing ovation.  Bud, the small-town grocer, was the first to stand.  I gave the eulogy at Bud’s funeral a couple of years ago.  Two guys from Upsala died in the Vietnam war.  The funeral for Jerry Kalis occurred that June while I was home on leave, and I attended in my dress uniform.  I had attended the funeral for Jim Theisen before I entered the service.

Thanks for listening to my memories.  Click here for a prior post about Memorial Day and here for more info about my service as a Ranger (LRRP) and the short stories I have been writing the past couple of months.

UPDATE: I HAVE CREATED A SEPARATE WEBSITE ENTITLED “LRRPS OF VIETNAM”, AND I HAVE ALSO PUBLISHED FIVE SHORT STORIES BASED ON MY NAM EXPERIENCE.  THE SHORT STORIES, ENTITLED PROWL ARE AVAILABLE AS AN EBOOK FOR $6.99 OR PAPERBACK FOR $9.95.

Chasing After Wind

In the hubbub of news about the capture/kill of Bin Laden, the professional soldiers/sailors that carried out the mission have justifiably received a heap of attention.  The “tip of the tip” of the spear is one characterization I have heard.  “Seal 6” is apparently the name of this elite group of ultra-efficient military men.  Other terms that have been bandied about in the general conversation about the elites of the combat soldier include Navy Seals, Army Rangers, Special Ops, Special Forces, and more.

This is where the news gets personal, for I was an Army Ranger in Vietnam forty years ago.  Coincidentally, I have recently been working diligently to write short stories based upon my Vietnam experience, so those days and months so long ago have revisited my memory.

Although there are references to Rangers in the colonial wars, Revolutionary War, and Civil War, the first modern use of the term comes from the D Day assault on Normandy.  While waves of combat soldiers waded ashore on the beaches, the Rangers successfully scaled the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc in order to take out an artillery battery that shelled the beaches and the landing craft.  In the Pacific theater, Merrill’s Marauders successfully traversed 1,000 miles of Himalayan mountains and Burmese jungle to slip behind the Japanese lines, and every single member of the unit received a bronze star.

With the outbreak of the Korean conflict, Ranger units were again formed and trained, including the only all-black combat unit in the war.  The Ranger units were used for night raids, remote patrols, and parachute assaults behind enemy lines.  After the end of the Korean conflict, the Rangers were disbanded and did not appear again until Vietnam.

Helicopter over Viet NamRanger units of Vietnam, including my outfit, K Company of the 75th Infantry Regiment, were Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol units (LRRP for short).  Recon in remote and hostile territory was the primary mission of our four-man LRRP teams rather than ambush or assault, but we fought when we were discovered, and I was awarded a pair of bronze stars for valor in combat.

Other than the concept of the stiletto–a small, surgical, strike force—my experience was vastly different from the Rangers of today, much less the secretive Seal 6.  Our training, equipment, and level of expertise were Neanderthal by comparison.  While many in my unit had received training at Ranger school at Fort Benning before arriving in Vietnam, nearly all were combat newbies.  I had no specialized training at all, but I was accepted into the Rangers based upon six weeks of combat experience with an infantry company.

An early review of my series of short stories suggests bold, dark, and intense, and I think that is an apt characterization, not only of my writing, but of the Vietnam experience.  This week, the fourth  installment was published, and you may find the eBook entitled Chasing After Wind with the publisher or with Amazon.com, and it treats dark themes of death and fate on the framework of a barracks poker game, the uncontrollable wind, and a malevolent joker in the deck.

Ecclesiastes provides the epigraph and the title:

No one has power over the wind to restrain the wind, or power over the day of death; there is no discharge from the battle … all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Ecclesiastes 8:8 & 1:14

Chasing After Wind

No one has power over the wind to restrain the wind, or power over the day of death; there is no discharge from the battle … all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Ecclesiastes 8:8 & 1:14

In the hubbub of news about the capture/kill of Bin Laden, the professional soldiers/sailors that carried out the mission have justifiably received a heap of attention.  The “tip of the tip” of the spear is one characterization I have heard.  “Seal 6” is apparently the name of this elite group of ultra-efficient military men.  Other terms that have been bandied about in the general conversation about the elites of the combat soldier include Navy Seals, Army Rangers, Special Ops, Special Forces, and more.

This is where the news gets personal, for I was an Army Ranger in Vietnam forty years ago.  Coincidentally, I have recently been working diligently to write short stories based upon my Vietnam experience, so those days and months so long ago have revisited my memory.  Read more …