Ain’t Released Me Yet
Memoirs of a REMF
Copyright© 2016 by Robert B. Martin, IV
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission from the copyright owner, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or scholarly journal. I have attempted to recreate events, locales, and conversations from my memories of them.
“The weekend starts here.”..............Fatboy Slim
On weekends most of us went into Lawton, OK on a pass. It was such a big difference from the feeling of imprisonment in BCT. There had been very little time to squander on enjoying yourself in BCT when the schedule was carefully planned down to the minute. If you were not training you were either cleaning gear, cleaning the barracks, studying manuals, eating, or sleeping. At Fort Sill I was given greater responsibility for myself and I felt trusted. It felt more like being in college than in the Army.
One Saturday I was hitchhiking into Lawton when a man stopped and offered me a ride. I graciously accepted and got into the car. Hitchhiking to and from town was quite common and safe back in those days. Fort Sill and the citizens of Lawton had a good working relationship and giving rides to soldiers was routine. The driver introduced himself and told me he needed to make a quick stop by his office. It was on the way to town and would I mind? I told him that I didn’t mind, of course. He pulled into a small office park, got out of the car, and went into one of the offices while I waited in the car. A few minutes later he came back out and apologized, telling me that it may take him a little longer than expected and asked if I would like to come inside where I would be more comfortable. I got out of the car and followed him into a small reception area, sat down, and picked up a magazine as he disappeared into another room. After about ten minutes he came back into the reception area and told me that he would like to show me something and would I please come with him.
By this time, I was becoming somewhat wary and a bit suspicious but I followed him into the larger room where he gestured for me to take a seat at a table in the middle of the room. He then walked over to another table that was against the wall. There sitting on the table was what he wanted me to see. It was a very large set of shiny aluminum cookware. He asked if I thought my wife (he had already discovered that I was married) would like a set of these beautiful cooking utensils. I answered in the negative and he began using some “hard sell” tactics. I kept telling him no, I was certain that she did not need or want a new set of pots and pans. However, he seemed desperate to make the sale. Perhaps he was behind in his monthly sales goal and being pressured by his boss to produce. On the other hand, he could have been a top salesman who was only one set shy of winning a sales contest. I only know that he wasn’t taking no for an answer. He reminded me of a South Georgia evangelist wanting me to tithe my 10% and accept Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior except he was preaching the benefits of accepting a set of pots and pans and placing a considerable amount of money into his collection plate.
After what seemed like an awfully long sermon with me shouting “No” instead of “Amen,” he left the room only to return a couple of minutes later with a man he introduced as his boss. Now it would be two-on-one and the boss was going to show his salesman how to close the sale. It had become very clear to me that the pressure was being increased in an effort to wear me down so that I would agree to purchase the cookware. I was determined not to purchase these utensils. I knew that a set of cookware was probably the last thing on earth that Carol Ann wanted. She was a professional woman who was now living at home with her parents and enjoying the family maid’s home cooking. What was she going to do with a set of pots and pans?
Even though I was determined not to give in, I couldn’t just get up and walk out. I didn’t know exactly where I was, other than several miles from town, and there was no other means of transportation available to me. After about an hour of the brow beating I decided that if I could outsmart a DI then I could outsmart a pots and pans salesman. I began letting them think I was beginning to break by saying such things, as “Well, maybe my wife would like a set of this stuff.” And “Yes, I’m sure she would like it.” “This is very nice stuff.” Then, “Oh, but there’s a problem.” “I don’t have enough money with me, I don’t have a credit card, and my wife keeps the checkbook.”
I told them she worked during the day but I would call her that night and have her wire me the money. They could pick me up tomorrow afternoon; I would give them the money order and take possession of my new pots and pans. They already knew my name but I gave them the name of a training battalion, other than D-7, and a made-up phone number. We shook hands, smiled, and patted backs, went out to the car, and completed the ride into Lawton. I never heard from them again. They are probably still trying to find me.
Most weekends I would go into Lawton with a group of guys from D-7. We would rent a motel room to use as our headquarters for the day. We didn’t spend the night at the motel. Our passes were not for overnight so we had to return to the barracks by midnight but could go back into town on Saturday and Sunday. There wasn’t much to do in Lawton but drink and watch the Vietnam War on TV with Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite reporting. That’s when I began to realize what might lie in store for me. I really had not given the war much thought until then.
On a weekend in May, 1969 I made the familiar trek into Lawton with a some guys from D-7. We got our usual motel room and settled in with a supply of beer and turned on the TV. We saw reports of terrible fighting in the A Shau Valley in the Thua Thien Province in the northernmost portion of South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) was dug-in on top of a mountain called Dong Ap Bia in the A Shau Valley. The U.S. called it Hill 937. The battle would last for ten days and become known as “The Battle of Hamburger Hill” due to the grinding nature of the fighting. It was a poorly planned operation with only minimal coordination between the U.S. and ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) troops. An infantry battalion of the famous 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles, was the spearhead of the attack. The Commanding General of the 101st Airborne Division committed an additional three battalions of infantry by the end of the battle. A total of 22,000 rounds of artillery were fired in support of the piecemeal ground assault and the U.S. suffered about 60% casualties in taking the hill from the NVA. There were 72 KIA (Killed in Action) and 372 WIA (Wounded in Action) reported. There were also several “friendly fire” incidents, which killed and wounded several men. Then, three weeks after taking the hill, the U.S. abandoned it. Just walked off and left it for the NVA to move back onto.
The Army managed to spin press briefings to make the battle sound like a big U.S. victory but it eventually became a big embarrassment for the Army and the Nixon administration. The assault on the hill had received a tremendous amount of press coverage and the hill’s abandonment so soon after the battle resulted in a huge public outcry questioning the necessity of wasting U.S. lives in a poorly planned attack on a highly trained and motivated enemy entrenched on a heavily defended mountain top. The resulting political pressure caused General Creighton Abrams to alter U.S. strategy in Vietnam from one of “maximum pressure” to one of “protective reaction” in an effort to lower casualties. History has shown that this was the point in time that the politicians threw in the towel. It was the beginning of the end. The war would no longer be fought to win. General Abrams was even ordered to avoid such encounters in the future. If they hadn’t been already, the politicians were now running the war, thinking more about their reelection than of the men and women in harm’s way. This is when President Nixon implemented his policy called “Vietnamization.” The South Vietnamese were to begin shouldering more of the fighting while the U.S. slowly decreased its troop levels. It would be take four more years to withdraw all of the American troops and turn the fighting entirely over to the South Vietnamese and an additional two years for the South Vietnamese to lose the war.
Seeing the reports about Hamburger Hill on TV caused me to begin worrying more about going to Vietnam. It hadn’t seemed real to me before this and I didn’t want to be forced to admit to myself that I probably would be going to Vietnam. Of course, I was still in training and had no way of knowing for sure I would be going, but at that time it did seem as though everyone was going to Vietnam. I couldn’t help but hope the Vietnamization policy would be successful and the Vietnamese would take over the war so I wouldn’t have to go. Unfortunately, it would take years for this policy to work and for the last U.S. troops to leave Vietnam. From this point on there would also be a steady decline in troop morale and discipline, eventually rendering the U.S. Army ineffective as a fighting machine.
Less than three months after watching the news reports of Hamburger Hill an ironic twist of fate would find me in Vietnam and assigned to one of the 101st Airborne Division’s artillery battalions that had provided supporting fire for the Battle of Hamburger Hill. I would even end up stationed very close to the A Shau Valley and Hamburger Hill.
Another weekend was coming up and this time I managed to get a weekend overnight pass that was good from Saturday morning until midnight Sunday. I decided to catch a Saturday flight to Atlanta to see Carol Ann. I didn’t want to “waste” the pass on a Saturday night in Lawton. Carol Ann could drive the ninety miles from Toccoa to Atlanta so we could spend Saturday night together. I could be back at Ft. Sill well before midnight on Sunday. At least that was the plan. Saturday morning arrived and I took a cab to the Lawton airport. It would be my first time back in Georgia since reporting to Fort Jackson, SC. I was feeling pumped as I approached the ticket counter. I slapped my Bank AmeriCard (now VISA) down and asked for a round-trip ticket to Atlanta. The ticket agent asked to see my pass, which I gladly showed him.
“This pass is only good within a fifty-mile radius of Fort Sill,” he told me.
The smile on my face melted and my shoulders sagged. In a pleading voice I said, “But I haven’t seen my wife in months and she is eight months pregnant. I’m not going AWOL. I’ll be back in time.”
He was very understanding and wanted to help me but told me I needed a particular travel document in order for him to sell me the ticket. He explained how he could get in trouble if anyone checked and discovered that he sold me the ticket without getting a copy of this form for his files. I asked where I might obtain such a document and he pointed to a table manned by two MPs. I squared my shoulders, stood straight, tried to look like I knew what I was doing, and marched confidently over to the MP’s table. I pointed back to the ticket agent as I told the MPs that the agent, who was smiling and waving at them by this time, needed a DD-what-ever-the-number-was form. One of the MP’s nodded back to the agent and handed me a form. I thanked him and carried it back to the ticket agent. Together the two of us completed the form and I scrawled a signature at the bottom. It wouldn’t hold up under close scrutiny and it was strictly against regulations. My ass would be in a sling if it was scrutinized too closely. But the agent had covered his ass. If I was caught, he would only need to say, “I didn’t know the boy had forged it!”
After selling me the ticket he did caution me to avoid any MP’s between Lawton and Atlanta or I might be arrested for being AWOL outside the fifty-mile radius. Not to mention what the punishment would be for forgery! I could chalk up another personal victory if everything worked out.
I boarded the small puddle-jumper from Lawton to Dallas’ Love Field where I hid from MP’s in a locked toilet stall for almost two hours waiting on my flight to Atlanta. When the flight was announced I prayed that I wouldn’t run into any MP’s and made a beeline for the gate. I made it safely aboard the flight and was met by Carol Ann in Atlanta. She was as big as a house, but I didn’t care. She still looked great to me. She took me to a motel near the airport where Gretchen and Little Bit, our two miniature Dachshunds, were waiting. I had been telling people that I had a wife and two kids. That night all I could do was try and hold on to Carol Ann over the two dogs. They had always slept between us and weren’t about to change.
The next day Carol Ann drove me back to the airport for my return flight to Ft Sill with the connection in Dallas. I said goodbye, walked into the terminal, and checked the Arrivals/Departures board. I almost freaked out! The flight to Dallas was delayed due to severe thunderstorms in the Dallas area. The delay meant I would miss the puddle-jumper from Dallas to Lawton and there was not another one until Monday, the next day. I was still in a panic when I finally arrived in Dallas. If I wasn’t able to get to Fort Sill and sign-in on time I would be AWOL with a forged DD-what-ever-the-number-was form!
It just so happened that I was not the only GI in this mess. I found three other panic-stricken soldiers in the same boat. We cashed in our tickets ($17 each) for the remaining leg of the trip, ran over to the general aviation terminal, and chartered a private airplane, a Beechcraft Bonanza, to fly us to Lawton. We got a real sweet deal. A total of $100 ($25 from each of us) was all it cost. I think the charter company felt sorry for us.
The pilot was in a hurry to take off because another big storm was rolling in from the west and he wanted to get in the air before the airport was closed again. He said we could pay him after landing in Lawton. I sat in the right-hand front seat, scared to death. It was nighttime, the sky was black, there was thunder and lightning, and the pilot was trying to outrun it all. Fortunately, he did manage to avoid the storm and got us safely to Lawton. He even radioed ahead and arranged for a taxi to be waiting for us at the airport. As soon as we landed we threw the $100 at him and ran to the cab. I was not the first one to be dropped off at my barracks and the clock struck midnight while I was still in the cab. I had almost made it. I was only ten or fifteen minutes late but it was still late and I could be in big trouble. However, when I entered the orderly room, luck was still with me. The CQ (Charge of Quarters) on duty that night was a buddy of mine. Even though it was about 0015 (fifteen minutes after midnight) my friend didn’t say a word and signed me in at 2355 hours (11:55 PM). It seems I had made it with five minutes to spare after all! I chalked another one up in the win column.
Continued in Chapter 20, Next Stop Vietnam…