Excerpted from my unpublished memoir, Five-Foot Soldier, Six-Foot Army
I stepped out of the cool lobby of the Hotel Caravelle into the gathering darkness, wilting under the stifling humidity and recoiling from Saigon’s signature perfume, Eau de Garbage. It was almost 9:00; the streets were alive with cyclos and taxis. A flock of Saigon Cowboys whizzed by on motorbikes. Others, dressed in tight jeans and Western shirts, called out to passing Americans from the doorways of gaudy, neon-lit saloons.
Why weren’t those guys in the Army? I wondered. South Vietnam’s draconian draft laws demanded years of military service of practically every able-bodied man under forty. These cowboys were in their late teens and early twenties; none displayed any obvious physical disability. Like bats, they appeared at twilight, flitting around the streets on noisy bikes and trolling for customers on Tu Do Street and other GI haunts, peddling booze, girls, drugs and black market goods. The young Americans GIs to whom they hawked their wares had been plucked from jobs, schools and families and sent halfway around the world to fight Communism, to sweat and bleed and sometimes die for Vietnam’s freedom. For Vietnam’s privileged youth, that freedom very apparently included dodging the draft to enrich themselves.
Most of these young pimps and drug dealers came from families with sufficient means to bribe an official to remove their names from draft rolls or to assign them to an ARVN unit in which they would never serve. Corrupt commanders pocketed these “ghost soldiers” pay and sold their rations, uniforms and sometimes even their weapons.
Years later, as North Vietnam’s legions overwhelmed South Vietnam’s armies of ghost soldiers, the Saigon Cowboys, their families and the corrupt officials who had grown wealthy peddling draft exemptions, fled to America with their money. Many found havens in Orange County, California, Houston, Texas, or other politically conservative communities. They invested in real estate, opened restaurants, shops and other businesses, sent their children to public schools and energetically attacked the idea of Communism with raised voices and clenched fists. They penned bitter press polemics criticizing their brethren for anything supportive of the Hanoi regime and railed against America for abandoning South Vietnam, all the while waving the red-and-yellow flag of the vanquished nation for which they had gone to great lengths to avoid taking up arms to defend against Communists.
But on that warm, fetid, Saigon evening I knew only that I wanted a good dinner. I had arrived at midday, and by seven had completed my round of network and wire service offices, briefing each bureau chief on an upcoming operation. Siler wanted to make sure that plenty of cameras and reporters were around for it, so he dispatched me, with instructions not to provide too much information, to pitch the story. Freshly showered, I was looking forward to my first decent food in six weeks. Afterward, I would return to the hotel to spend a cool, flying-insect-free, low-humidity night between clean sheets, rise refreshed, shower again, make a quick trip to the Class VI store for bottled barter goods, then stop at Saigon’s well-stocked PX for a few necessities. By noon l would be at Tansonnhut for a ninety-minute Air Force ride upcountry; I’d be back at the An Khe Mortar Lodge in time to enjoy a supper of stale, canned “B” rations.
As I strolled across the square past South Vietnam’s Parliament building—some waggish newsie had dubbed it “the world’s largest rubber stamp”—toward the Continental Palace Hotel, a rambling, shabby-elegant relic of the French Colonial period, I heard my name shouted.
I stopped and peered into the deepening twilight.
Another shout and I knew that it came from the Palace’s veranda, a popular dining and imbibing spot. Because Americans congregated there, a few roguish passers-by sometimes lobbed in hand grenades; hotel management responded by covering the porch with thick wire mesh. It was from behind that steel grid that I heard my name shouted a third time.
I stepped up and into the veranda and a tall, bespectacled man of about thirty waved to me. He was with a pretty young woman and a couple of men whom I recognized as journalists.
“Wolf!” he said.
“Sorry—have we met?” I said.
“You were at Camp Kaiser—Seventeenth Infantry, right?”
“Yes, in 1960.”
“Why are you still in the Army? And why are you only a PFC?”
Before I could answer, he introduced the woman as his wife, Susan, and said that he was working for the New York Times. And he told me his name.
And all at once it came rushing back. In February 1960, I had sailed from San Francisco on a troop ship, the USNS Daniel I. Sultan. Nineteen days and 51 paperback books later, we dropped anchor off Inchon. Two days of processing through replacement depots, an issue of cold-weather gear, and I reached Camp Kaiser, well north of the 38th Parallel, and just beyond artillery range of the North Koreans on the DMZ further up the valley. With about 200 other replacements, I entered a Quonset hut complex marked Personnel and Finance and waited to be “in-processed.” Two hours later, after everyone else had been processed, a tall, dark-haired, bespectacled specialist five in his mid-twenties appeared. His nametag said “Sheehan.”
I followed him into an office where squads of clerks pushed paper through typewriters or cranked mechanical adding machines called Comptometers.
“Sit there,” said the lanky Irishman, in what I took as a Boston accent.
I waited as he leafed through my file, stopping to skim each letter and document. He laid the open file before him on the cluttered desk.
“You have unusually high scores,” he said.
He meant the test scores that in that era every recruit established upon entering service. The most important was the GT, or General Technical, a measure of vocabulary, reading comprehension and mathematical reasoning; an average score was 100, plus or minus ten. To get into Officer Candidate School you needed 110; schooling as a pharmacist, medic, electronics technician or finance clerk, for example, required still higher scores. Only infantry training required no minimum.
My scores, I knew, would get me into any Army school; I was tempted to say something clever to Sheehan. But every soldier learns that messing with a payroll clerk is risky: There’s nothing to stop them from mailing your records to Greenland and screwing up your life for years.
“Thank you,” I replied.
“You’re scheduled for Delta Company, 17TH Infantry,” he said, reading from mimeographed orders.
“Delta company. Okay.”
“But when I saw your scores…. How’d you like to work here?”
I was surprised, then amused. My face, I’m sure, gave me away.
“I’m an infantryman,” I replied.
“No problem,” said Sheehan. “We’ll give you sixty days OJT, then award you the MOS.”
Two months on-the-job training would lead to reclassification as some kind of clerk. I’d probably never see infantry duty again.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
He looked at me as if I had announced that I was uncertain that the earth was round..
“Let me tell you about duty in a rifle company here,” Sheehan said.
As if I hadn’t spent the last six months in a rifle company.
“Most weeks you’ll spend three or four days in the field, and I mean, all year round. You’ll eat mostly C-rations and there may be days in the field when you don’t eat at all. This division is less than full strength, so the duty roster is short; when you’re not in the field, you’ll pull all kinds of extra duty, including guard, twice a week. Korean winters get down to twenty or thirty below zero—plus the wind chill. In summer it gets over a hundred degrees and it’s very humid. In a few weeks, the spring monsoon begins—it rains for weeks. You’ll be out running around in that, night and day, freezing or boiling or wondering if webs are growing between your fingers and toes. That’s rifle company duty here.
“In this headquarters, we get three hot meals a day. We sleep between clean sheets every night. A shower every day. We have stoves for winter and air conditioners for summer. We’re off at five o’clock. No weekend duty. No holidays. No guard, no KP, no dirty work, no shit details.
“So, what do you think?”
I had no words for what I was thinking. I had no way to describe the feeling of contempt that an infantryman, who even in peacetime spends his days and nights and weeks exposed to the elements, feels for those who have not. Every grunt who has gone without sleep, without bathing, without decent food while being forced far beyond his perceptions of personal physical limits, who has marched and crawled and climbed while cold and wet or hot and sweaty, feels that anyone who wears the uniform but is removed from danger and hardship, whose military service is performed in relative safety and comfort, is a pussy. The fighting Marine loathes the Navy swabby and is openly contemptuous of Army green. Most of the Army sneers at the Air Force and Navy. The rifleman, gunner or grenadier knows with certainty that he’s a better man than any clerk, cook or mechanic, better even than a candy-ass mortar gunner who rides in a truck. The infantryman scorns the headquarters soldier as a chair-borne ranger, a fourth-rate warrior. A clerk is no soldier. He’s a rear-echelon MF, unworthy of the uniform.
I had been a soldier scarcely a year when this well-fed, clean, rested, nicely-scrubbed and doubtless well-intentioned clerk offered me the opportunity to walk away from the privation and denial that is the infantryman’s daily ration. I couldn’t say exactly why, but it made me angry.
Oh, and there was another thing. The height thing.
It didn’t help that this clerk was six feet tall.
“So what do you think, Wolf?”
“I think there’s more chance to make rank in a line outfit,” I said.
Sheehan pulled my file closer and extracted the manila Form 66, my service record.
“You made PFC at ten months total service. Two months later than most. Then Specialist Four less than a month after. How did that happen?”
“NCO academy,” I said.
“And you were honor grad, right?”
It was all there in my records for him to see. I just nodded, yes.
“And then you were the Fort Lewis Soldier of the Month?”
He had me cold.
“Well, it’s not true that line company duty is better for promotion. Headquarters passes out the stripes, and we get our share. So, what do you say? Want to work up here?”
I’ll admit it. I was torn. Just a little.
“I’m not sure.”
Sheehan held up my Form 66.
“We never see scores like yours up here. I bet there’s no one on this base, including the officers, with your GT score. When I showed this to the personnel officer he said ‘How did Eighth Army miss him? Get him in here.’
“So what the hell is a kid like you doing in the infantry anyway?”
It was not the first time that I’d heard that particular question. At Ft. Lewis, on the rare Friday night when I was allowed to attend religious services—the price for skipping the barracks cleaning party was Sunday KP or guard duty—I mingled with the doctors, dentists, lawyers, chaplains and clerks who comprised the great bulk of the Army’s Jewish ranks.
“What’s a nice Jewish boy doing in the Infantry?”
“Give my sergeant a call, I’ll have you transferred to a nice office job.”
“I’m looking for a dental assistant. Can you type?”
“Ever thought about law school? A couple of years in the Judge Advocate’s office wouldn’t hurt your resume!”
They meant well, but they were truly mystified by my apparent acceptance of serving among gentiles too dumb to realize that they were cannon fodder.
Then there was the casual bigotry that permeates the speech of those who grow up learning, for example, that negotiating a better price is an exclusively Jewish practice, or, paradoxically, that Judaism and communism are synonymous. In the Fifties, most American Jews were familiar with the phenomenon. When pressed, I told my co-religionists that the infantry wasn’t so bad, that most of the guys I knew didn’t seem to know or care that I was Jewish.
Except for the time in basic training when Milam and Smith, two hulking recruits from some West Virginia hollow, cornered me in the shower and probed my skull for horns, then examined my backside, genuinely mystified when they found no trace of the tail that their preacher claimed was standard equipment on every son of Moses.
Nor did I mention that I had been profoundly affected by childhood encounters with films, books, and lectures about Nazi death camps. Mass murder as an industrial process. Piles of pale, emaciated bodies bulldozed into ditches. Acres of half-burned corpses. Six million dead for the crime of being Jewish. What could be more frightening to a young, impressionable mind? I told no one, but I had long ago decided that if something like that happened in America, I would not be led sheep-like to my slaughter. I clung to the belief that if enough Jews showed the will to fight, we might avert an American Holocaust.
Yes, yes, yes. I was young and naïve and, deep down, very frightened.
Before I could hope that Jews could fight, I must first prove that I would, so given the pick of Army schools, I chose infantry’s crossed rifles.
But I didn’t know how to say all that to the tall Irishman with pomaded hair and thick glasses. And it was none of his business anyway.
“Just lucky, I guess,” I told him.
He shot me an odd glance.
“Look, I’ll level with you,” he said. “I hate it here. You’ll hate it too. But you’ll hate it a helluva lot more down in Delta Company. “
I nodded to show that I was listening.
“Let me train you. In sixty days you’ve got the MOS. Then you’ll be my replacement; I’ll put in for a ninety-day drop and go home early. If I time it right, they won’t even re-assign me—just give me an early out.
“So, what do you think?”
I was thinking, This is how a REMF’s mind works. This is how headquarters types game the system, looking out for number one instead of thinking like part of a team with an important mission.
Jerk-off REMF, that’s what I was thinking.
But still, if I ever wanted easy duty, this was my shot.
“And listen—guys like you have nobody to talk to in an infantry unit.”
“Guys like me?”
He glanced at my records. “And of course, there are no other Jews.”
He didn’t mean it maliciously. I’m sure he had Jewish friends. I know for a fact that he would one day have a Jewish wife.
But I was looking for a way out, a graceful way to turn him down.
“Sixty days and you’ll get your Finance MOS. ”
I was never, ever, going to be another candy-ass Jewish finance clerk.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’ll go to Delta Company.”
“If you change your mind…”
Life in Delta Company was much as Sheehan described, but worse. I regretted my decision only about fifty times.
Our mission was to prepare for the real possibility that the shooting war that had ended with the 1953 armistice might resume. This was during the most frigid period of the Cold War and only months before the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crises. The world’s third-largest standing army was dug in less than 30 miles north of Camp Kaiser. Between us was an untested division of the seven-year-old South Korean Army; few of its officers and none of its conscript troops had been blooded in battle. Behind us lay the main supply route to Seoul, a narrow, unpaved road between rugged mountains that twisted and turned for some 50 miles to the outskirts of the national capital. If hostilities resumed, we expected the South Koreans in front of us to fold, and quickly. Our mission was to delay the enemy’s advance down that road long enough to allow the evacuation of Seoul, then a city of a million. Our officers told us, point blank, that Eighth Army expected us to hold only two days. They also said that none of us should expect to survive the encounter.
That was what we trained for. And so we froze. We went without sleep longer than I had believed possible. I marched holes in three sets of boots. I ate everything I could get my hands on and still lost weight. I got crotch rot in the summer, frostbite in the winter, and trench foot in the spring. I grew more than an inch.
I sewed on sergeant’s stripes shortly after my nineteenth birthday.
I ran a weapons squad. I made stupid mistakes and learned to lead men. I helped guys fill out income tax returns and make sense of Army paperwork. I made friends and gave respect to men who were far better soldiers than I would ever become. To this day I am proud to say that I served a year in Korea as an infantryman. What I learned about soldiering in those frozen hills and baking valleys was of immeasurable value when I got to Vietnam, and to my life ever afterward. And from my experiences grew a feeling of deep and abiding kinship with every American soldier who has ever shouldered a rifle.
* * *
Sheehan didn’t finish his Korean tour. He was a Harvard man and had worked as a reporter. Instead of finding a replacement and getting an early out, he moved to Eighth Army PIO, then wangled a job at Stars & Stripes, in Tokyo.
He stayed in Tokyo until his discharge in 1962, then went to UPI and took over its Saigon bureau. He worked with David Halberstam, Peter Arnett, and Malcolm Browne. Like them, he distinguished himself as a reporter. He met a senior US military advisor, a slick, politically-gifted light colonel named John Paul Vann, and a former Marine named Daniel Ellsberg.
Bad luck cost Sheehan a shot at the Pulitzer Prize when he was recalled to Tokyo just before Ngo Dinh Diem was deposed in a 1963 coup. But Sheehan later spent years researching and writing a book about John Paul Vann and got a Pulitzer anyway.
When Sheehan left UPI, he joined the New York Times. In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg, his pal from 1962 Saigon, was working at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California. A hawk, keen to stop Communism’s spread through Asia, Ellsberg discovered proof of the falsehoods and deceptions that the Johnson and Nixon Administrations had used to justify and perpetuate the war. Trusting Sheehan to do the right thing, Ellsberg slipped him a trove of secret government documents exposing these lies, the so-called “Pentagon Papers.”
The Nixon Administration sued to stop publication of these secrets. The Supreme Court said that the First Amendment didn’t allow prior restraint.
Ellsberg, Sheehan and the New York Times altered the course of history.
The Bible tells of Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Would that have happened had Joseph not come to his brethren at the precise moment when there was murder in their hearts? And how did Joseph, many miles distant without any idea where his brothers had gone, locate them? Because “a man” whom he encountered while wandering the fields of Shechem in search of his siblings directed the seventeen-year-old Joseph to Dothan, where he found his brothers. But who was this “man”? The ancient rabbinical sages concluded that this fellow, about whom we know nothing else, was a Divine messenger—an angel— sent to ensure that Joseph found his brothers.
Because if Joseph had not gone to Dothan, he would not have been sold into slavery. He would not have brought his family to Egypt. There would have been no Exodus. No Sinai. No Bible. World history would be entirely different.
And so, once in a while, I wonder: What if I hadn’t been such a cocky kid, so full of smug self-superiority? What if I’d accepted Sheehan’s kind offer? What if Neil Sheehan had left Korea early, never worked for Stars & Stripes, never went to Saigon in 1962, never met Ellsberg or Vann?
What would have happened? How different would the world be?
I don’t know about Sheehan, Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers or his Pulitzer Prize, but I would have become just another REMF. Another smart-ass Jew finance clerk.
Instead, though I suffered, I became a soldier.
Did God send Sheehan to tempt me with easy duty so that I would fully consider the difficult path I had chosen before fully committing to it?
Or did God harden my heart, as he had Pharaoh’s so that in time Sheehan would become Ellsberg’s vehicle for publicizing the Pentagon Papers?
Or was God taking a nap on that dreary Camp Kaiser afternoon, and all that followed was a series of random acts, of blind chance?
Take your pick.
Three days after I ran into Sheehan in Saigon, the First Cav kicked off a massive operation in the mountainous region east of An Khe. Dozens of reporters, photographers and camera crews reported on our activities.
But Sheehan had another assignment, and I never saw him again.
© 2018 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.