I stepped out of the Hotel Caravelle and into the gathering darkness. The streets were alive with pedicabs and taxis. The youths we called “Saigon Cowboys” whizzed by on motorbikes or called out from saloon doorways.
I headed across the square, past the Parliament toward the shabby-elegant Continental Palace Hotel.
Someone shouted my name. I stopped and peered into the twilight.
On the Palace veranda, a tall, bespectacled man of about 30 waved. He was with a young American woman and some journalists I knew.
“What are you doing here?” he said.
I stared, confused.
“Have we met?”
“You were at Camp Kaiser?”
“Why are you still in the Army? And why are you a PFC?”
I mumbled something about my break in service and he introduced me to his wife and said that he worked for the New York Times.
And then it came back. He was the clerk.
I came to South Korea on a troop ship and was trucked, with several hundred other replacements, to Camp Kaiser. We were delivered to a Quonset hut to wait for “in-processing.”
I immersed myself in a book until it was too dark to read and my stomach began issuing ultimatums. I was alone; everyone else had been called.
Then a tall, dark-haired, bespectacled clerk with an Irish name beckoned me into a room where contingents of clerks pushed paper through typewriters or cranked ancient mechanical adding machines.
“Sit there,” said the lanky clerk and I waited as he leafed through my file, skimming each document.
“You have unusually high scores,” he said.
He meant the tests that recruits take when they enter service. The most important was the General Technical; it measured vocabulary, reading comprehension and math ability. You needed 110 to get into Officer Candidate school; training as a medic, electronics technician or finance clerk, for example, required higher scores. I had my choice of Army schools; I picked infantry.
I was tempted to say something clever. But you mess with a personnel or finance clerk at your peril: There’s nothing to stop one from mailing your records to Greenland and screwing up your pay for years.
“Thanks,” I replied.
“You’re scheduled for Delta Company,17th Infantry,” he said, reading. “But when I saw your scores…. How’d you like to work here?”
“I’m an infantryman,” I replied, amused.
“We’ll give you on-the-job training.”
“I’m not sure,” I said.
He peered at me as though I had just confessed to an axe murder or announced that I was uncertain if the earth was round.
“Let me tell you about Delta Company,” said the clerk. “You’ll spend three nights a week in the field the year around. You’ll eat mostly C-rations and there’ll be days when you don’t eat at all. This division is under strength, so there’s never enough men for all the shit details. When you’re in garrison, you’ll pull guard duty twice a week. And you won’t get the next day off.
“In winter it gets down to 20 or thirty below. In summer it goes over a hundred. In spring it rains for weeks. You’ll be out in that, night and day, until you wonder if webs are growing between your fingers and toes. Like a frog.
“But here we get three hot meals a day. We sleep between clean sheets. A shower every day. We have stoves for winter and air conditioners for summer. We’re off at five No weekend duty. No holidays. No guard, no KP, no details.
“So, what do you think?”
I had no words for what I was thinking, no vocabulary to express the contempt that an infantryman, who even in peacetime spends days and nights and weeks in the field, feels for those who don’t. Every man who has gone days without sleep, without bathing, without decent food while being forced far beyond his own fearful notions of personal limits, who has marched and crawled and climbed and faced the elements and done his job well, feels that anyone wearing the uniform but removed from danger and hardship, whose duties are performed in relative safety and comfort, is a pussy. The Marine hates Navy swabbies and looks down at anyone in Army green. Most of the Army sneers at the Air Force and Navy. The rifleman or grenadier knows that he’s a better man than any mechanic or cook, better even than mortarmen. The infantryman scorns headquarters types as chair-borne rangers, not even poor warriors but rear-echelon MFs, unworthy of the uniform.
So when this clean, well-fed, rested, and doubtless well-intentioned clerk offered me the opportunity to walk away from the privation and denial that is the infantryman’s daily ration, it made me angry.
“So what do you think?”
“I think I’ve got a better chance to make rank in a line outfit,” I said.
He pulled my file closer and extracted the Form 66.
“You made PFC at ten months. Two months later than usual. Then Specialist Four less than a month after. How did that happen?”
“Don’t be modest — you were honor graduate,” he said. “It’s not true that line companies get more stripes. We pass out the quotas. We keep our share. So, what do you say? Want to work up here?”
I was torn. A little.
“I’m not sure.”
“So what the hell is a smart kid like you doing in the infantry?”
I’d heard that before. On the rare Friday nights when I could attend religious services, I had mingled with the doctors, dentists, lawyers, chaplains and clerks who made up 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.”
“Ever thought about law school? Clerking in the Judge Advocate’s office wouldn’t hurt your resume!”
They meant well. They just didn’t understand why I would limit myself to serving as a common soldier, as cannon fodder.
And they knew of the Army’s casual anti-Semitism, of the many who believed that negotiating a better price is an exclusively Jewish practice, or, paradoxically, that Jews and communists are synonymous. That Jews are clever weaklings—thinkers, manipulators, swindlers. Never men of action.
I chose infantry because I wanted to show that an undersized Jew could be tough and smart. That in a macho, testosterone-driven world where the strong push aside the weak, I wasn’t going to be pushed so easily.
But I was eighteen. I didn’t know how to say all that. And it was none of his business.
“Just lucky, I guess,” I replied.
He shot me a hard look. Here it comes, I thought.
“I hate it here. You will too. But you’ll hate it a lot more in Delta. “
I nodded to show that I was listening.
“Let me train you. In 60 days you’ll be my replacement; I’ll go home 90 days early. If I time it right, I won’t be reassigned—I’ll get an early discharge.
“So, what do you think?”
I was thinking, This is how REMFs game the system, looking out for themselves instead of thinking like part of a team with an important mission. Jerk-off REMF, that’s what I was thinking.
Still, if I ever wanted easy duty…
“And listen — guys like you have nobody to talk to in a rifle company.”
“Guys like me?”
“Smart guys. And you’ll be the only Jew.”
In hindsight I know that he didn’t mean it maliciously. But to me that was the last straw. I was never going to be just another Jewish candy-ass, another Jewish Finance clerk.
“I’ll go to Delta Company.”
“If you change your mind…”
Life in Delta was much as the clerk predicted, but worse. I regretted my decision only about 52 times.
The war that began in 1950 had paused with an armistice–a cease-fire–in 1953. Soldiers on both sides still died in brief skirmishes or from occasional artillery shells or land mines. Infiltrators and saboteurs were common. Tough and battle-tested, the world’s third-largest standing army was 30 miles away, poised to resume the attack any day. Our mission was to prepare for that day.
So we trained hard. We went without sleep longer than I believed possible. I marched holes in three sets of boots. I ate everything I could get my hands on and 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 before my 19th birthday—one year and six months after enlisting.
I ran a squad. I made mistakes and learned to lead men. I made friends and won the respect of far better soldiers than I would ever become. To this day I’m proud to say that I served a year in Korea as an infantryman: What I learned in those frozen hills and boiling valleys was of immeasurable value ever afterward. My experiences fostered a deep and abiding kinship with every American who ever shouldered a rifle.
The clerk, Neil Sheehan, didn’t finish his full tour. He was a Harvard man with journalism experience. He was a few months from going home when an unexpected opening at Stars & Stripes took him to Tokyo. Months later he was discharged and hired to run UPI’s Saigon bureau. He worked with some of the best reporters of our generation and distinguished himself. He met John Paul Vann, a senior US military advisor, and a former Marine named Daniel Ellsberg. Sheehan spent years researching and writing a book about Vann, A Bright Shining Lie, which won the Pulitzer Prize.
When Sheehan left UPI he joined the New York Times. In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg, then working at the Rand Corporation, discovered proof of the lies and deceptions that the Johnson and Nixon Administrations had used to justify the Indochina war. Trusting Sheehan, Ellsberg slipped him secret government documents exposing these lies, the so-called “Pentagon Papers.”
Publication of the Papers by the New York Times led to a Supreme Court ruling that reinforced the First Amendment by prohibiting prior restraint. Ellsberg and Sheehan changed history.
The Bible tells of Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers. He might never have found them but for a mysterious “man” who directed him to distant Dothan. Some rabbis say this was an angel sent to ensure that Joseph met his fate.
Because if he had not been sold into slavery, there would have been no Exodus, no Sinai. No Bible. Our world would be different.
And so I wonder: What if I hadn’t been insufferably full of smug self-superiority? What if I’d accepted Sheehan’s offer? What if he’d gotten his early discharge, never worked at Stars & Stripes, never made to 1962 Saigon, never met Ellsberg or Vann?
How different would the world be now?
I don’t know about the Pentagon Papers, but I would have been just another REMF. Instead I lived among wolves. I earned the right to tell stories around the campfire.
Did God send Sheehan to tempt me with easy duty, to make me fully consider the difficult path I’d chosen?
Or did God harden my heart, like Pharaoh’s, so Sheehan would meet Ellsberg and get the Pentagon Papers?
Or was God napping on that dreary Camp Kaiser afternoon and all that followed was blind chance?
Take your pick.
© 2008 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, and short fiction, each offering a glimpse of my life and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.