Given the Choice of Experiencing Pain and Nothing, I Would choose Pain. W. Faulkner

This is a work of fiction based on actual events that constituted my life. I have chosen this genre primarily for legal and privacy considerations. All the people not listed as pseudonyms are real, as are the places, unless otherwise stated. © Copyright 2020

ISBN: 978-0-578-75000-2

MY LIFE AT THE LIMIT

An Autobiography

DONALD SWAN

DEDICATED to:

U.S. Veterans of all wars and especially those who were KIA. my 1st cavalry division (airmobile) brothers in arms, and junior enlisted, US army infantry, who deserved recognition but got no medal at all.

Charles C. Hagemeister, LTC U. S. Army, Retired (former enlisted) and Medal Of Honor recipient, Vietnam. 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), 1967. I regret to announce: he died 5/19/21 at age 74 in Leavenworth, Kansas.

George K. Mullins, Staff sgt U.S. Army, World War iI, Utah beach, bastogne. 327th GIR, 101st Airborne Division, thankfully still going strong at age 96.

Thomas l. Kirkham, Sr. Col USAF retired. Laos, Vietnam. thankfully still living at 82.

jay M. strayer, col USAF retired. South & north vietnam. thankfully still living at 84.


Deadly salvos of flaming steel thundered down on us faster than the speed of sound, like all the NVA in Vietnam was out for us, and not relenting until no American invader remained. We would be overrun, our throats cut, our weapons seized, our body’s desecrated, and our blood used to enrich the red on their NVA flag.     

Forty-Six Chapters follow:

Chapter 1: Training To Kill

A carpet of luxuriant rye grass snaked through the forest floor around dogwood, peach, cherry, magnolia and azalea. Pearly white sand and small coruscating ponds surrounded greens of a bent grass, manicured to perfection.  This was Augusta National; a Garden of Eden for golfers.

A few miles way, I stood at attention, a guest of Uncle Sam, sweat pouring off my brow. I wasn’t here for the golf. 

I was counting on the heat, humidity, and farm labor that I endured in Mississippi to give me an edge in U. S. Army Basic Combat Training (BCT), in the especially hot summer of 1966, at Ft. Gordon, near Augusta, Georgia.

During the eight weeks of intense training at the 56,000 acre post, some GIs were seriously injured, and two recruits from our Battalion, of about 1,000, died from heatstroke. Around the time of these deaths (July 25, 1966) it was officially 98 degrees in Augusta, and the humidity, 100 percent!  There was absolutely no pause in our training, no break from the stifling heat and humidity.

 

Our training company was made up of draftees and volunteers. About half of our group were so-called minorities, from the poorer areas in and around New York City. The rest of the recruits were mostly Caucasian, and came from rural and poor regions of the South. A few from both groups had chosen the Army over Jail after a Judge had given them one of the two choices.

In the best of circumstances, this aggregation wasn’t apt to blend very well; in the pressure cooker of BCT — it was volatile. There were taunts and insults, pushing and shoving aplenty. When it elevated to fists and blood, most were not within sight of a Drill Sergeant. Even the lamest in the groups knew they could end up in the stockade with the possibility of a Bad Conduct or worse, Dishonorable Discharge.

In the Mid-1960s, U. S. Army Drill Sergeants (DSs) could and did treat trainees virtually any way they pleased: Loud, Vulgar, and  occasionally Physical.  Although I was in good shape, I quickly learned that BCT required more than brawn. I also had to appease and maneuver in the virtual minefield around Staff Sgt. Hicks, one of my snarky and callous Drill Sergeants.

The Vietnam veteran, so designated by the large and distinctive yellow and black 1st Cavalry Division patch at shoulder level, on his right sleeve, appeared to be in his late twenties. He stood wiry and weathered at about 5’ 7.” His heavily starched fatigues sported perfectly ironed creases, and the tips of his spit-shined jump boots sparkled-black in the bright Georgia sun. Hicks wore his Smoky Bear hat slightly tilted — just above his right eye.

He stood with conviction and authority, and the sergeant’s raspy voice spit out invectives faster than a jacked-up Carnival Barker.  “When I get done with you sorry sissies y’all wished you’d took the Marines”* Hicks shouted, “cause’ I’m as tough as any Drill Instructor in [Marine] Boot Camp. No, I’ll be tougher cause’ turning you pathetic sons’ of bitches into soldiers gonna’ take a God Damn miracle!”

Calling Staff Sgt. Hicks management style In Your Face would be an understated insult to the man, once you saw him in action. He intimidated the candidates of war up close, personal, vulgar, and unrelenting. If we didn’t perform to his satisfaction, which was the usual, Hicks would hurl his favorite insult, “You fucking worthless trainees look like the aftermath of a Chinese gang bang.”

One didn’t have to screw up to feel the heat; we ran everywhere, dropped for seemingly endless push-ups, and repeatedly double-timed with our ten pound M-14s, stiff-armed high over our heads, taunted by DSs.

There was marching, lots of marching to cadences like: 

Ain’t no use in calling home

Jody’s got your girl and gone

Your left, Your left, Your left right left.

Ain’t no use in going back

Jody’s got your Cadillac

Sound off; 1 – 2 – 3 – 4;

Ain’t no use in going home

Jody’s got your girl and gone

Sound off; 1 – 2 – 3 – 4;

Ain’t no use in feeling blue 

Jody’s got your sister too

Sound off; 1- 2 – 3 – 4; 

Ain’t no use in looking down

Ain’t no discharge on the ground

Your left, Your left. Your left right left.

Sound off .  .  .

images
The Base of my misery in the Summer of ’66. We were fond of calling it Ft. Garbage. (Courtesy Wiki Commons)
 

A typical day began with a rude awakening at 4:30 in the morning, with a band of DS’s banging garbage can lids while ordering us to “shit, shave and shower.” Then we fell into formation for inspection followed by rigorous physical training (PT) that included running, calisthenics, and close order drills until breakfast at 0600.** Then it was more PT followed by marksmanship training with live ammo naturally, hand-to-hand, and combat tactics until the noon meal. By now, we had a fresh set of DSs. 

But there was no chow until we satisfactorily executed the low crawl, monkey bars, and recitation of the 11 General Orders, totaling 65 words about Guard Duty that no soldier was likely to repeat or remember after BCT.

By the book military low crawl, is designed for stealthy movement in battlefield conditions. The purpose: Make your body a smaller target for the enemy, while moving swiftly, flat on the ground.  A 40-foot long three-foot-wide course, with a three-inch furrow dug into the hard Georgia dirt, was the low crawl obstacle we had to surmount in a timely manner.

The mercury lingered in the high 90s. We had been humping since 0430, and now there was the added pressure of a rarely seen officer observing us; our platoon leader, 2nd Lt. Harris. He stood like a recruiting poster, about six feet, square jaw, and solid build, with gold bars on his collar and cap.  His olive drab fatigues were starched and creased to the point that I believe his uniform would stand erect without him (in it). The tips of his Cochran® jump boots glistened like black water reflecting from a Georgia swamp.

The Lieutenant wanted to see how his men were progressing. Naturally, the first recruit in line for the low-crawl was the biggest screw-up in our company, a tall-skinny buzz-cut recruit from West Virginia. He laid down in the dirt and began to advance, but his belly was not flat to the ground, and he was too slow. The DSs were yelling,  “Get your butt down soldier, you gonna’ get it shot off.” Our Platoon Leader was not amused.  

Harris waved our boy out of the dirt, spun off his cap, and dropped into the pit hard. While perfectly flat, he pulled himself forward with quick twists of his arms and elbows and pushed with swift kicks of his knees and feet.  He plowed through the soil like an International-Harvester® and he slithered 13-yards faster than an alligator in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp.  When Lt. Harris stood, gathered his cap from the dirt, and brushed himself off, three buttons from his fatigue shirt hung by a thread. 

Drop and give me 20 and get back in the dirt is what we were expecting. Instead, Harris, about two inches from the recruit’s face unleashed in a low growl, “Five good men die in Vietnam every day,” then he let loose with his loud commanding voice  “because of fuck-ups like you, get outta’ my sight, you worthless piece of shit.”

Without any prompting, me and the remainder of our platoon immediately fell in line, dropped into the dirt, and low crawled with sufficient motivation. 

After the low crawl wake-up call from our platoon leader Lieutenant, there were still miles to go before we slept. We marched eight miles in full gear, then trained in mortars, hand grenades, and again with our M-14s. Daily indoctrination continued until 1900 — longer during night maneuvers — and one was subject to details until 2200 when lights-out was called.

 

As desperate as the U.S. Army was for soldiers, a few days later, we saw “Goober” (smart like a fox?) boarding a Greyhound™ back to West Virginia wearing his GI Khakis and black low quarters.

I’m thinking, oh boy, one less screw-up in the company, making it likely that the DSs would have more time to harass us average trainees. Now, some recruits were saying, “I can screw up real good; let them bus me out.” But what about those who had been told, “Jail or the Army?” Others were saying, “Go ahead and ship me to Vietnam now, away from the sadistic DSs.” For many, the U. S. Army had managed to turn Georgia U. S. A. into their own combat zone.

The hammer over our heads was the real threat of Vietnam. If we could withstand the rigors of Basic, and hone some combat tactics, we would have a better chance of survival in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The intent of BCT is to break down the recruit to the lowest form of life, then slowly build him back-up while indoctrinating the candidate to obey orders — immediately and unquestionably.

BCT taught the skills the U.S. Army had determined would best serve the soldier in combat; it was intense, rote, and rigorous. If the soldier’s skills were sufficient and so ingrained, his training would kick-in automatically in a combat scenario — practically without thinking.  That’s the theory, and there is some evidence to support it.

This is how we trained; our DSs pushed us to exhaustion, tried to make it unbearable, wanted to find our breaking point. Our training may not have been Green Beret or Ranger tough, but our DSs were no pussies. They pushed us hard enough that a few men did break and were recycled, sent to the shrink, or in rare cases back home. Better to have a meltdown in BCT than in the regular Army or worse yet — in combat. The theory: “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle.”

There was a brief rest period when we got mail call late in the afternoon. After the command to fall-out, the DSs announced in a loud but friendly voice: Smoke ’em if you got ’em. (Typical meaning: Take a break, you might not get another for a while, and don’t forget to field strip your cigarettes.) The frequent letters from Marty and Momma were a great morale boost. During one of the breaks, a DS asked where I was from. When I replied “Mississippi,” he said to a fellow DS, “He’s a 20-year man . . . never had two pairs of shoes.” During the same respite, a trainee was laughing loudly. The same DS asked him, what was so damn funny? Then the sergeant, without waiting for a reply from the soldier, quipped for everyone to hear,  “I’ve been in the Army 20 year’s and I haven’t heard one damn thing that was funny.” 

With a fresh set of DSs we headed to chow at 1800, the same rules applied as with the noon meal; a recruit couldn’t get to the mess table until successful completion of the low crawl, monkey bars, and recitation of General Orders. If a trainee failed any of these exercises, he had to start over by going to the back of the line. No doubt, some never mastered all the tasks in time to get fed. When we feasted on C-Rations in the field, those rules were waived, but there was less “food” and calories in those cans.

After the early evening feed, we “rested” in classrooms with lectures on tactics and reviewing combat films from Vietnam; anyone falling asleep would get 20 push-ups or more.  We remained in the buildings where we began taking apart, cleaning and re-assembling our M-14’s.  In the final evaluation, we were required to perform those tasks while blindfolded. Failing any of the major exercises, like this one, would get the trainee recycled, or as the DSs said: “Start basic all over again.”

Our next stop was at the chemical compound, where we were locked in chambers filled with tear gas and remained there for a minute or more to gauge our reaction. Now with masks around our waists, we were sent in the gas again, and got no relief until our protective gear was properly fitted.

Then we double-timed to the range for a special live-fire exercise all were required to experience during BCT. Conducted under darkness, coincidentally, while low crawling under razor wire, M-60 machine-gun bullets blazed 10-12 inches over our heads at Mach 2.5. Panic during this exercise, and you’re unlikely to worry about any more training or Vietnam.  As bad as the DSs were and as hard as the training was, heat prostration notwithstanding, one was unlikely to die from it. Getting burned with a 7.62-mm projectile traveling 2,750 feet per second was a decidedly different matter.

Don 1966 photo
Swan in 1966 after U.S. Army Basic Combat Training, Ft. Gordon, Georgia. (Swan archives)

By about 2100, we had marched or double-timed back to the barracks or tents for an inspection of our footlockers, latrine, and living areas.  If we passed, lights were out by 2200.

We trained for 60 straight days and nights, and those of us lucky enough to avoid injury, recycle, or worse had finally met all the requirements and completed U. S. Army Basic Combat Training. Despite Sgt. Hicks, I graduated BCT, in the upper third of my company of 150, or maybe it was because of him.

Had my Mississippi experience given men an edge? Maybe, but the real test would inaugurate some 9,200 miles from Georgia.

Next move: Advanced Individual Training (AIT) several weeks or even months, depending upon one’s Military Occupationally Specialty (MOS) like Infantry, Special Forces, Artillery, Aviation, Engineer, Cook, Chaplain Assistant, Native Language Speaker, Diver. Veterinary Food Inspector, Cryptologic Linguist and many others, most headed to Vietnam.

Most of us would get leave before our advanced training began. After successful completion of AIT, we would be prepared — and hopefully ready —  for WAR.

*Some were drafted into the Marines (or allowed to opt for the Corps).

**Many writers list military time as 0600 “hours,” this is redundant and incorrect, 2400 (midnight) begins a new day, 0600 is the sixth-hour of a new day, eliminating the need for “AM or PM or hours.”

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