|These are some funny stories that describe some of my experiences while serving nearly 30 years with the US Army career. If you find this site by accident through a search engine you are welcome to contact me and share your thoughts. Thanks. My e-mail address is BradenClan@
With nearly 30 years of military service
comes a lot of great memories, and a few stories.
Here are some that bring me a smile.
Back to Army Stuff.
One Company "Wheels Up" to the Near East - 20th Engineer Battalion - Fort Campbell, KY
The 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, is often called upon for a quick response to worldwide military situations. It was April 1st when I called the brigade operations officer and said, "Al, did you get the call from Division? I have to have an engineer company 'wheels up' in 24 hours for mine clearing in the Near East." Of course (April Fools Day) Al hadn't been called by the division, and as I hung up he was verbalizing the deployment checklist. Deciding to call it off before things went too far, I called right back. Busy. Called again. Busy. The "hot line" rang on my desk: the Brigade Commander wanting to know what was happening. "Nothing, Sir," I said, "and, by the way, do you know what day it is?" Not-so-nice words came from my boss before he hung up. We soon learned that Al had called the division and stirred things up a bit. Hey, can't anyone take a joke?
Staff Duty Officer Protects the Battalion - 169th Engineer Battalion - Vietnam
Army units have commanders who are responsible for their unit 24 hours a day. But there are times, like after duty hours at night until reveille the next morning, that commanders are not with their units. So there is a duty roster created that has officers report at night and ensure that things are kept under control until the commander returns. This person, entrusted with the unit, is called the Staff Duty Officer (SDC) and there is normally a Staff Duty Noncommissioned Officer (SDNCO) who is there to assist. Units create SDO books that tend to be voluminous and well-tabbed, supposedly to cover every possibly contingency from the time the SDO recognizes a problem or incident until the commander can be contacted.
No, I did not write up anyone in my SDO Report. Thought my talking to put enough scare into them.
- The SDO for the 169th Engineer Battalion in Vietnam - like most SDOs - had "rounds" he was supposed to make during the night, like checking on the Gate Guards, making checks through the battalion area and visiting the Battalion Motor Pool to ensure everything was peaceful and quiet. So around 6 PM, shortly after my duty began, I had my driver take me to the front gate where trucks were still returning to the battalion area after completing their day's duties. I got there as a truck checked by the gate guards was passing through and watched as they checked the next truck. The driver handed his paperwork down to one of the guards who reviewd it and gave the signal for the other guard to lift the gate which was a long piece of pipe with a cantilever weight. I said to guard that I wanted him to hold up, and then i went to the truck, stepped up on the running board, and opened the passenger-side door. There - low in the seat - was a Vietnamese Lady of the Night - who I suppose was about to spend the evening entertaining our battalion. By gestures I invited her to get out of the truck and gave her a hit-the-road signal . . . her problem to get home. Then I got the two gate guards together and had a little chat with them. You see, being a gate guard was a specialo duty and - in Vietnam - a safe and easy one. We very quickly came to an understanding that in the future they would very carefully and carefully check all vehicles and equipment returning through the gates, and that if I ever heard of something like this again I would do my best to get them punished and assigned as a door gunner in an aviation unit - a job that most everyone considered very dangerous. Then I had a similar chat with the driver, who - like the gate guards - was sweating bullets and promising that he would never ever make that mistake or any mistake again.
- Later that night I walked through the Motor Pool. I heard some rustling within one of the small buildings there. I said something like, "Staff Duty Officer. Come out!" Nothing, and now it was very quiet. I took my .45 caliber M1911 automatic pistol out of its holster and pulled the slide back and then let it run forward. A loud CLICK-CLICK. From inside I heard, "Don't shoot. Please don't shoot. I'm coming out." Yep, another soldier with another Lady of the Night. I got my driver to pick up the lady and deposit her on the other side of the battalion gate. It turned out that I knew the soldier in the building: Smith, and he knew me. He pointed to my now-holstered .45 and asked, "You weren't going to shoot me were you" I relied, "Heck, no. I don't have any bullets in the weapon," and showed him my clip still in its ammo pouch on my web belt. So Smitty got the same talk and I got the same promises as with the gate guards and the other driver.
Charge of Quarters (CQ) Duties - 370th Engineer Company - Kaiserslautern, Germany
Fast forward a couple of years and now I am the commander of a company in Germany and someone needs to be in charge of the company when I am away. Companies are too small to have a pool of officers to watch over things at night, so there is a CQ Duty Roster and the duty is filled by sergeant. The CQ has an assistant, a junior enlisted soldier, who is called the CQ Runner. And, yes, I had a large and well-tabbed CQ Book. When I had a sergeant who was about to pull CQ duty for the first time, I had him come in a bit earlier than normal to thumb through the book and then I had a chat with him.
Me: What are you going to do if there is a fight in the company area?
CQ: I'm going to call the Military Police.
Me: Wrong! You are going to call me first. (You see, when MPs come to your unit they write up a report and send it down through channels. So soon your boss gets to learn there was a fight in the company area and he sends you a letter with the MP Report attached asking what you are going to do about it. Then you reply to him and he forwards your reply to the MPs - assuming he agrees with your course of action. But a company commander has enough authority and tools to handle the problem himself without all that paperwork, and you want to make that fact perfectly clear to the CQ.)
Me: What are you going to do if there is a theft in the company?
CQ: I'm going to call the MPs
Me: Have you been listening to me?
CQ: I'm going to call you.
Me: What are you going to do if there is a murder in the company?
Ah, they all caught on. Of course in case of a murder I would call the MPs.
CQ: I'm going to call you.
Bonnie at Bad Durkheim - 370th Engineer Company- Kaiserslautern, Germany
Can you recall the soft rubber play toys that have a small metal vent that makes a squeaking sound when the toy is squeezed? Well, at the Bad Durkheim Wine Fest (advertised as the largest in the world) that we went to with the 370th NCOs, there were soft plastic hammers there and made a squeaking noise when the hammer was tapped against something. We are all having fun when Bonnie decides to have more fun. She stands on a table near the entrance to the wine tent and is enjoying herself lightly tapping everyone on the head as they enter the tent. Squeak. Squeak. Squeak. As the people feel the tap on their head and hear the squeak, they look up and smile at Bonnie. Except that one man doesn't smile. He moves towards Bonnie who also recognizes the situation and takes off. The man is not tall, but he must have a 75" chest and forearms bigger than telephone poles. AND HE IS AFTER MY WIFE!! So I'm also moving, trying to get between him and Bonnie, and trying not to think about what might happen when I do get between them. But he gets to Bonnie first. He stands in front of her and holds out his hand. Bonnie surrenders the rubber hammer to him, at which point he takes the hammer and very lightly taps her on the head. Squeak. He then hands her back the hammer, smiles, bows, and goes on his way. Good fun but WHEW!!
Sending Water Purification Units to Romania - 317th Engineer Battalion - Eschborn, Germany
Engineer battalions in Germany had truck-mounted water purification units, five per battalion. But since water in Germany was treated everywhere, and we could usually pay a modest fee to tap into a local water source, the water purification units were mostly underutilized. During an exercise, perhaps one of the five would be set up and operated. Since there was also never a need for all five to be operational at once, and since the equipment had hard-to-get parts, we always wondered if all five were really operational, as the Battalion Supply Officer reported. So ... a few days before April Fools Day, I asked my Communications Sergeant to dummy up a message from the highest headquarters in Europe, right to us with info copies to our Corps and Brigade. The subject was, "Disaster Relief in Romania" and cited the recent major earthquake there (there was no earthquake anywhere), and required our battalion to have all five operational water purification units ready for deployment from Ramstein Air Force Base in the next 24 hours. Recognizing what such a message might do to the Battalion Supply Officer, I asked the Battalion Commander in advance what he thought about my little prank. His words were, "Jay, I wouldn't do that if I were you." Well, since he didn't forbid me, the plan was launched - with predictable results as our Supply Officer and all his people immediately went into a low hover realizing what they would have to do to get all five machines ready for deployment. And before I could put an end to it, our Battalion had called our Brigade who had called the Corps. Hey, can't anyone take a joke? Yes, our section had a bit of difficulty getting supplies from the S-4 section for a while.
Borrowing Five Sheets of Plywood - 370th Engineer Company - Kaiserslautern, Germany
I spent some time most mornings with the 370th Engineer Company in our motor pool. One morning I had noticed a pallet of plywood there, and asked First Sergeant Williams if he knew where it came from. He replied that he thought it had been returned from a construction project. That same day another First Sergeant came to us at lunch. He explained that he was desperate to get five sheets of plywood and asked if we had any. I said, sure, and started to point him toward the pallet we had in our Motor Pool when 1SG Williams politely jumped in. "Sir," he said, "I checked on that plywood and it belongs to a project." The look in his eye prompted me to let the subject go. 1SG Williams then explained to his peer that he would, however, check around to see if he could find some, and let him know. Not long after our return to the company area, I saw and heard 1SG Williams on the phone, explaining that he did find three sheets of plywood, and would be sending over some men to deliver them that afternoon. I asked, "Top, where are those three sheets of plywood coming from?" He replied, "From the pallet in the Motor Pool." Seeing the question on my face, he delivered his lesson. "You see, if you have a lot of something and give a little away, it doesn't mean anything. But if you have only a little and give it all away, it means a lot - now he owes me." And, as I was trying to assimilate this, he concluded, "... and if he asked for five sheets he only needed three anyway."
The Pig Farm - 20th Engineer Battalion - Fort Campbell, KY
The 20th Engineer Battalion was selected to participate in REFORGER 1883. REFORGER stands for Return of Forces to Germany, something important in the Cold War days when the Russian threat was significant. The REFORGER plan was to rapidly move forces from the US to Germany on very short notice to counter any military threat there. In fact, there was a complete set of battalion equipment pre-positioned in Germany so our unit could simply hop a plane, check out the stored equipment, and move to become almost immediately operational. REFORGER exercises were conducted annually in Germany at various locations to exercise a variety of units and spread out the wear and tear on the countryside caused by large military formations running around the woods and cities. Because Germany was at peace, there were certain real and practical constraints. A military unit could not just set up anywhere it wanted without aggravating the populace. So, with peacetime considerations in mind, we made an advance trip to Germany to select our initial battalion location. Remember that numerous other units were doing the same thing, and Germany-based units had already selected some of the more desirable sites. We couldn't find anything. But on the last day of our "recon" we found a piece of woods that had a ravine leading out to a farmhouse and a very large barn. Aha, the battalion could bivouac in the woods and the battalion headquarters could operate out the barn - assuming the local farmer would agree. As we approached the farmhouse it dawned on us that this was no ordinary farm. The barn was really a place where big mama pigs were artificially inseminated to have baby pigs that would be weaned and then sold to other farmers to further grow and eventually market. Yes, there were a million flies and the odor was significant, but we thought we could deal with it, so we staked out this farm and woods as our initial location. Returning to Fort Campbell, I had to report to the Division Commander on the trip. I told him that we had found a great location for the battalion - a pig farm. As I saw his eyebrows rise, I reported that everything about the location was just fine, but that the only problem would be the smell ... but that the pigs would get used to us after a while.
Air Assault on Drop Zone Eagle - 20th Engineer Battalion - Fort Campbell, KY
Engineers need engineer training, and air assault infantry need air assault and infantry training. And all units need combined arms training. At Fort Campbell, when we were going out as an engineer battalion, we tried in advance to identify an infantry brigade training at the same time to see if we could find some things to jointly train on, like having the infantry assaulting bunkers that we would build as part of our training. On one occasion we were going to be in the field for about a week, and so we had linked up with an infantry brigade for about two days of joint training, then each organization would go its own way for the balance of the time. For some reason, early on the fourth day I stopped by the infantry brigade Tactical Operations Center to say hi and see what they were doing. They were all busy at the time, so I just stayed in the background and tried to get a feel of what they were working on. Well, what they were doing was planning a massive air assault at night on an "enemy" company. Only the location of the "enemy" company was where one of our engineer companies was bivouacked. They were going to do a little training and give us a bit of a surprise as well. I departed without making my presence - or feelings known. Hmmmmm. Here's a question: Do you know what engineers have a lot of? The answer is barbed tape concertina - and big trucks to haul a battalion's worth of concertina out to the company that had been selected to be the brunt of the night air assault. We spent most of the day helping that company get dug in, fortified, and protected with multiple layers of some really ugly concertina. When the air assault came, they didn't find a surprised unit to be attacked, but a well-dug-in engineer force ready to repel invaders, which was the case. Not one air assault soldier penetrated the perimeter. Moral: Don't mess with engineers with barb wire.
Building Bailey Bridge - 317th Engineer Battalion - Eschborn, Germany
This story comes from Larry Bonine who was Executive Officer of the 317th Engineers at the time I was there.
Rodriquez from S1 was acting as Larry's driver to visit Baily Bridge training. [A Bailey bridge is a type of portable, pre-fabricated, truss bridge. It was developed in 1940Ė1941 by the British for military use during the Second World War and saw extensive use by British, Canadian and American military engineering units. A Bailey bridge has the advantages of requiring no special tools or heavy equipment to assemble. The wood and steel bridge elements are small and light enough to be carried in trucks and lifted into place by hand, without the use of a crane. The bridges are strong enough to carry tanks. (Bailey bridges are no longer fielded with engineer bridge units, but many Bailey Bridge sets are available in storage for possible wartime use.) They also continue to be used extensively in civil engineering construction projects and to provide temporary crossings for pedestrian and vehicle traffic. They are assembled by connecting panels that are a six-man carry and weigh 570 pounds apiece. Panels are pinned together and pushed across the gap using rollers that are removed once the bridging has crossed the gap.]
Back to the story: Larry arrived at the site as the hard working troops were on break. Two combat engineer soldiers, on break, were sitting on Baily Bridge panels.
Pleasantries: "How you doing? Howís the chow? You guys learning anything?" That sort of thing when a sergeant walks up and using drill sergeant language says, "All right, letís go, letís go!" One of the combat engineers who was talking to Larry then said to ole serge, "Letís go? Letís go? We heave men, you Lay ho man. Letís see you be Heave man, then say letís go!"
So the world is divided into heave men and lay hold men. Larry has shared that story with so many engineer leaders.
Larry Bonine is head of Pinnacle Leadership Group, Inc., which conducts construction project management and leadership programs across the U.S.with emphasis on means to better communicate between owners and contractors for their mutual benefit.
The Duty Train to West Berlin - 370th Engineer Company and 130th Engineer Brigade
One of the unique features about Germany during our times there was that the Cold War was a reality, so getting to the city of Berlin meant traveling through what was East Germany. (Students of history may recall the time when East Germany and Russia closed the ground corridors through to West Berlin, and the United States response by what is now known as the Berlin Airlift.) One way to get to West Berlin was by the Duty Train. There were three routes into West Berlin by Duty Train, one from Frankfurt, one from northern Germany, and one from Southern Germany. The train was free, but to schedule the duty train required about a six-week lead time, as documents called Flag Orders had to be assembled. These were very nice pieces of paper with the US Flag in color on the top. Most of the language on the orders was in Russian.
We always took the train out of Frankfurt, which left in the evening around 4:30 p.m. and arrived the next morning in West Berlin. A military police company had responsibility for the train, and there we MPs patrolling the cars. Although there were one or two observation cars, the train was mostly Pullman sleeper cars. We learned that the key was, on boarding, to reserve one of the few seats on the observation cars, as your bunking cabin was already assigned by name.
It was permitted to carry food and beverages on the rain, including alcohol. But it was not permitted to open alcoholic beverages on the train. Of course that didnít keep us from secretly having wine and cheese parties in our cabins as the train traveled on its way.
The train would stop a few times along the way. Certainly as it entered East Germany and again as it left East Germany and entered West Berlin. You could look out your window and see Russian guards patrolling the train Ė not to keep anyone from getting off, but to keep East Germans from getting on. Your Flag Orders would ultimately be returned to you with stamps in Russian on them.
In the morning the train would pull into the station in West Berlin and we would disembark for our sightseeing.
Growing Grass - The Combat Engineer Way - 130th Engineer Brigade - Hanau, Germany
All First Sergeants like to have their company areas looking nice. And one aspect of that is a nice, grassy lawn. But sometimes there is so much foot traffic that, despite signs and even fences, the grass doesn't have a chance. While with the 130th Engineer Brigade, I did notice that the First Sergeants of the separate companies had a good system. Once they seeded an area, they not only fenced it but placed barbed taped concertina all through it. Anyone daring to attempt a shortcut across the seeded area would not only risk the wrath of a First Sergeant, but risk being cut to pieces. When the grass was growing well and thriving in the concertina, the wire would be removed, the fence dismantled, the grass cut, and, voila, a nice grassy area.
Silver Bells - 20th Engineer Battalion - Fort Campbell, KY
When I was at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the Eagle Support Brigade was an organizational that consisted of non-divisional units, including the 20th Engineer Battalion. Each year the Brigade held its Christmas Ball at the club on base. One year I decided to invite the officers and wives/dates of our battalion to our quarters for a small gathering prior to going over to the club for the ball. I provided adult beverages at our house. So let's see, does a lieutenant want to drink free at the Braden house or pay for them at the club? Yep, you guessed right: they took lots of advantage of the free stuff. Lots. As a result they arrived at the formal affair looking very nice in their dress blue uniforms, but let's just say they were a bit loose. As part of the program, the Brigade Commander had invited in a ladies singing group, made up of many of the wives of the other officers on base. Bonnie and I had to sit at the head table, and we watched the two tables of engineers just having a grand time, talking and laughing - even when the Colonel was making his thanks and announcements. I tried to send the "keep it down" signal, but to no avail. Soon the 30 or so ladies in formals were in front and prepared to sing. Their song? Silver Bells. When the ladies began singing, one of our engineers decided to accompany them using a spoon and his water glass. So as these finely dressed ladies of ultimate decorum sang "Silver Bells" we heard the engineers . . . "Silver bells (ding) (ding) (ding), Silver bells (ding) (ding) ding) . . . Both tables joined in merrily. Needless to say, the Brigade Commander was less than happy, and if looks could kill, you wouldn't be reading this now.
Budget Battles - 7th Engineer Brigade - Kornwestheim, Germany
I spent lots of army time playing with budgets as a battalion commander, deputy brigade commander and brigade commander. As a battalion commander I learned that we were grossly under-budgeted which impacted upon most aspects of operations, especially maintenance, since it takes a fair amount of money to maintain low density, aged engineer equipment. As a deputy brigade commander, I had "the pleasure" of watching over the budgets of the various subordinate battalions, all of which had lots more money than I ever had yet complained about insufficient funds just as loudly. Of course we all know that it is almost a requirement to complain about funding shortfalls because if you don't someone will certainly assume that you have too much and move some of your money to grease the other squeeking wheels. One of my prouder moments, however, occurred when I was with the 7th Engineer Brigade and there was a corps-wide shortfall of funds. All the VII Corps units were called to the headquarters to defend their budgets. Most units sent their budget officers; I went for the brigade. All the other budget officers were throwing numbers at the Corps G3 until his eyes were rolling. When it was my turn, I said that his engineers needed to travel to sector periodically to visit their wartime deployment areas and review their specific target folders. I put a price on one brigade-wide iteration of this and then said that to be at readiness level 2 we needed to visit our wartime sector for training quarterly. To be at readiness level 3, three-times a year. To be at level 4, semi-annually. I said that whatever he picked was fine with us. We got all our money.
Spending the Day Planting Grass - 169th Engineer Battalion - Vietnam
My first mission in Viet Nam as an engineer platoon leader was to build a reinforced concrete underground operations center for III Corps. The structure was large - 90' x 120' with 22" thick walls and a 48" thick roof. It was located right in the center of the corps headquarters area in Long Bihn. While the Vietnamese countryside might have been filled with military encampments of tents, log bunkers, barbed wire, and protective minefields, the corps headquarters was characterized by concrete sidewalks, grass, flowers beds, and a number of locally hired Vietnamese workers who maintained all this to high standards. The Headquarters Commandant for the Corps was a lieutenant colonel, and he was not too pleased with a construction site right in the middle of his gardens. And I heard about it plenty. If ever things got "un-tidy" at the worksite, he was there to remind me to makes things right, no matter what else might be happening. Finally the project was completed. As I had promised him, we cleaned up the place rather nicely. As I did each day, I composed the Daily Construction Report. I could have said something like this, which would have been completely true: "Employed my 40-man engineer construction platoon and its associated 35-man Vietnamese local worker force to complete the tactical operations center including recovery of excess materials for return to the supply yard, verification of the serviceability of utilities, inventory and cleaning of tools for use in future projects, and maintenance of vehicles and equipment." Instead I wrote something like this: "Employed my 40-man engineer construction platoon and its associated 35-man Vietnamese local worker force to plant grass, build sidewalks, trim hedges, and straighten flower beds." The report was turned in to my company where the clerk typed it up. It went forward to battalion where it was combined with other construction reports, then to our Group Headquarters for similar processing. Guess what? The first person who read the report was the two-star general who commanded the 20th Engineer Brigade, and word was that he wasn't pleased to read about 75 men planting grass in a war zone. I'm lucky that everyone finally got a sense of humor about the whole thing.
Evaluating an Engineer Battalion - 20th Engineer Battalion - Fort Campbell, KY
One of my tasks while at Fort Campbell was to join a contingent of 101st commanders to evaluate a National Guard division. My job was to evaluate the divisional engineer battalion. After making the trip to Fort Drum via C-130 (a bit long and bumpy) I traveled out in the training area to meet my counterpart. The battalion had arrived not too long before and was still getting set up, but the battalion commander has his tent and area arranged. (He told me that this was where he always set up his tent at Fort Drum.) After introductions, he got down to his point, and asked me a question like, "Okay, what are you looking for this year?" Taken aback I responded that there wasn't anything I was looking for. He had a critical mission list that he had made for his unit so I was going to see just how well the unit could do on the tasks on his list. Gruffly he informed me that the last evaluator had insisted on making his unit dig in using by-the-books fighting positions (by the way, something we did all the time at Fort Campbell), and that effort had kept his unit from getting anything done during the two-week summer camp. I said that I understood his point, and that if he could just demonstrate a few correct fighting positions in each company area, that would be satisfactory evidence that they could do it. Evidently I passed first muster, because he then opened his cooler that was full of hard liquor (good quality stuff I might add) and he offered me a drink. At Fort Campbell, a battalion commander found with a beer in the field would be looking for a new job that same day, but I accepted his hospitality as in ".... when in Rome ..." (For the record, I checked back with his headquarters company once a day for the next twelve days to inspect for one standard machine gun emplacement, and I briefed him each day that what I saw was unsatisfactory. Ultimately he got the lowest possible rating - a "5" - for the area crew-served weapons.)
I found one of his headquarters operation tents with the latest Engineer Magazine open to an article on how to set up a tactical operations center to manage battalion activities while in a fast changing field environment. Not sure of their reaction when I pointed out the article and observed that I was the author.
One of the line companies came prepared for the field. It brought out a "civilian" clothes washer and dryer, and had them operational right within the company area. Also a commercial water heater. While everyone else was getting dirty and nasty for two weeks, this company found a way to keep its soldiers clean. The company also brought out and installed a commercial popcorn popper, for night snacks. And the company also hooked up a three way commercial intercom between its mess area, operations area, and maintenance area; and did the internal coordination for these areas right over this system. Worked just fine - the heck with military phones. The company commander also bought a private phone line and had WD-1 military phone wire run from its location just off the base into his base camp. His soldiers were able to call home (collect) right from their bivouac area. And, by the way, this company was very good in its military operations.
Finding Drivers for the Battalion Commander - 20th Engineer Battalion - Fort Campbell, KY
A Battalion Commander needs a sharp driver. That's a given. The battalion's Command Sergeant Major is the person who picks out the driver and ensures that his is sharp. There are no shortage of volunteers in a combat engineer battalion, because driving a jeep beats the heck out of riding around in a truck or APC and sleeping in the woods. But the job does require one thing: you have to be able to drive, and operate a manual transmission. Oh yes, the volunteers will all say they can drive a stick. Well one day at Fort Campbell I was out with my new driver on an exercise. We had to drive off the paved road and down a steep embankment to where an engineer squad was doing some bridge demolitions training by the creek that ran under the bridge. While I checking to make sure the training was going well, it became apparent that this squad of soldiers was the former "home" of my newest driver, and they were giving him some trouble about the new soft job he had, and I suspect he was giving them trouble about how important he had become - friendly banter. Then it became time to depart. The task was to drive back up the embankment, pause so we could see that the road was clear, and then pull back onto the paved roadway. The first trip up the hill, my driver was unable to work the clutch and the gas correctly and we rolled right back down to the point that I thought we'd end up in the creek. Oh, boy, his buddies saw what happened and they were hooting and jeering. The next trip up the hill there was the same problem, and we again rolled backwards down the hill, and this time we were able to stop before we ran over any soldiers, because they were all on the ground from laughing. The third trip up the hill was a bit different. When we got to the point where we paused on the incline and the driver was going for his third try at letting off the clutch while giving it gas, I reached over and pulled the manual throttle, revving the engine to a jillion RPM so we just shot onto the road like a rocket. Good thing there was no traffic or this story would not be told.
Pre-Chambered Road Craters - 317th Engineer Battalion and 130th Engineer Brigade
Can you believe there was a time when there was an East Germany and a West Germany, and the border between the two - on the East Germany side - had barbed wires, minefields, and guard towers? Can you believe that during this time American military commanders would gather near this border to discuss in detail how they would defend against an attack from combined East German and Soviet armed forces? Can you believe that some of the roads on the West German side of the border area - in places where the roads cut through otherwise very rugged terrain - had pre-constructed chambers sunk down in them so that when these chambers were loaded with explosives and the explosives detonated, the resulting crater would make the terrain impassible? Can you believe that the ammunition for these pre-chambered road craters (think of them as concrete-lined man holes going down 20-25 feet but with a special manhole cover that could only be removed with a special tool) was stored in concrete bunkers located nearby in the West German countryside? well, believe it all. And we practiced opening the bunkers, moving the ammunition to the site, lowering the charges in to holes, and wiring them for detonation. I'll bet the pre-chambers are still in place today - look in the former border area on certain roads for a series of three "manholes" spread about 20 meters apart. By the way, despite each bunker holding five tons of explosives, the German government never lost an ounce to terrorists or other evil doers.
The Soviet Military Liaison Mission - SMLM - 317th Engineer Battalion and 130th Engineer Brigade
The Military Liaison Missions in Europe were a holdover from the Second World War, when the Allies assigned representatives to work with each other in Germanyís various zones of occupation as Hitlerís minions disarmed. These special liaison units did not disband with the onset of the Cold War. Instead, they were given something of a carte blanche to roam around the countryside and observe military activity. The Americans, British, and French had "liaison" soldiers assigned to East Germany, and the Soviets had teams in West Germany. This awkward arrangement remained in place because both sides found it a useful way of collecting information on the opposition's troop movements and military hardware. The Soviet Military Liaison Mission (SMLM) was based in Frankfurt. When you see the acronym SMLM, think "Smell 'em" because that's the way we pronounced it. US soldiers carried a SMLM card in their wallet with directions on how to report SMLM vehicles or personnel. While SMLM teams were generally free to roam West Germany, they were banned from US training areas. US forces were advised to detain any SMLM teams found in places they should not be. Detain meant block them in with your vehicles; physical contact with the Soviets was forbidden. During our training exercises, our S2 (Intelligence) section normally checked out soldiers on their understanding of their duties if/when they saw a SMLM team. I asked how they did this. The response was that they asked questions to the soldiers, who had to answer correctly. Hmmmm. Being of the opinion that training ought to be realistic, we made some changes. We had a Department of the Army Civilian who helped the brigade arrange for training areas in the German countryside. He spoke German and a bit of Czech. We took the brigade's light blue military sedan and put a training license plate on it that had the SMLM designation. We got a Soviet uniform from the training aids people, and as part of our training exercises, our "Soviet" drove into the middle of the troops' bivouac area. When the soldiers tried to detain him, he berated them in Czech and drove away. And the soldiers would rush to move their vehicles to block him in, and he would avoid their roadblocks, screaming Czech all the time. When they would finally get his vehicle blocked in he would yell at them in broken English and Czech. Oh, yes, it was good training. I'm told that when we did this once in the Friedberg Training Area there was a signal battalion from the 3rd Armored Division doing some training and they lit up the SMLM reporting switchboard, thinking that they had a real sighting.
I added this note. It describes circumstances that I did not personally observe but ones that I believe are absolutely true.
When US forces conducted large exercises where a SMLM presence was required, US commanders would invite the SMLM team members to talk to American soldiers or soldiers. Any soldier.
So, for example, letís say the SMLM team picks out a female Specialist Four and - through an interpreter, naturally - asks the soldier about her duties and responsibilities. The American escorts would watch the SMLM team reactions as the US soldier would articulately describe her duties and, in the case of this soldier, a generator mechanic, how she would take action on her own to ensure the equipment under her care remained operational.
The Russians had to be overwhelmed by soldiers who were of low rank yet knew their responsibilities and were clearly prepared and fully authorized to exercise initiative to get their job done. They had to reflect on their own Red Army where lower rank soldiers were to do only as they were specifically told to do. One has to think that the Soviet Unionís withdrawal from East Germany and the resulting reunification of Germany had to be influenced in part by the recognition of the indomitable spirit of American soldiers. Hmmmm. Guess what; that trait of an American soldier has existed in every conflict in our nation's history. God Bless America.
Letter of Condemnation - 370th Engineer Company - Kaiserslautern, Germany
The 370th Engineer Company had a medic, Larry Walther, who was a great soldier, but not working in his military specialty as we had no medic on our Table of Authorizations. Specialist Walther really needed to be assigned to the local dispensary, and - in fact - I let him serve there whenever possible. They liked his work, and arrangements were initiated to transfer him there. He came to me and said he needed a Letter of Recommendation, more of a formality, but required nonetheless. I agreed and had a letter prepared. Only instead of being a Letter of Recommendation, it was a Letter of Condemnation. And it read accordingly, with all kinds of bad things in it. I told Walther that the letter was ready; he picked it up from my office with great thinks; and he delivered it forthwith to the head of the dispensary - who read it, and asked him if he had read it. I'm told I missed seeing a very red face, and we all had a good laugh.
Marching the Battalion to a Day of Combat-in-Cities Training - 20th Engineer Battalion - Fort Campbell, KY
While at Fort Campbell, Kentucky with the 20th Engineer Battalion, we decided to combine two training events into a memorable day. The base had a "Combat-in-Cities" training area about ten miles out from the barracks areas so we decided to do a road march - by foot - out to the area where we had some training specialists waiting to deliver some interesting and valuable training. Heck, ten miles was almost a no-brainer - we had battalion runs three days a week of four miles. At any rate, the morning started out very well; it had rained the day before but we had clear skies, and cool temperatures ... good because we all had combat packs and weapons, about 30-40 pounds worth of gear. It was fairly impressive to see more than 400 soldiers trekking through the encampment, and we were all in good spirits. After about three miles we were clear of the main base and into the training area. To get to the Combat-in-Cities site we marched the trails rather than along the paved roads. Unfortunately, the rain from the previous day had left the trails wet, and the gooey red mud of Tennessee clung to our boots and made sucking sounds with each step. The effect was like adding 30 pounds of weight and another 10 miles to the march. I thought my driver, walking along side me, would pass out from exhaustion. We arrived at the Combat-in-Cities area very much worn out, and all the great training we had planned for there was mostly in the toilet as the soldiers were too exhausted to learn anything.
The Fjord of Dry Fork Creek and the Suchon Road Bridge Demolition- Good Training - 20th Engineer Battalion - Fort Campbell, KY
Training exercises at Fort Campbell, Kentucky could be pretty realistic. On one such exercise, the maneuver force we were supporting attacked the first week and seized a key fording site on a creek passing through the training area. [A ford is a shallow place with good footing where a river or stream may be crossed by wading, or inside a vehicle getting its wheels wet. ... A low water crossing is a low bridge that allows crossing over a river or stream when water is low but may be covered by deep water when the river is high.] Knowing that the scenario would be reversed for the second week of the exercise and our forces would have to defend our side of the creek (against the mechanized company brought in to Fort Campbell for the exercise), I ordered the creek dammed to make the water depth at the site too deep for fording. This was going well and the water level was rising with the likelihood of having the ford impassible by Week 2. This changed when, at one of the evening command briefings, Major General Bagnal, CG of the 101st, commended me on a good plan, but noted that the downstream town of Clarksville had contacted the base stating that their water had been cut off. So General Bagnal 'suggested' I return the creek to its natural state, with further kudos, however, on a good plan.
In that same exercise, now during the defensive stage, I received an urgent message from one of my lieutenants. The opposing (mechanized) forces were about to break through in the south unless we could stop them from crossing the Suchon Road Bridge. He asked, "Can I blow it?" I replied, "Will you fix it after the exercise is over?" He said yes and got my permission. He wired the bridge for detonation and set the time fuse. Over the hill came four motorcycle scouts from the opposing forces, intent on capturing the bridge. Our engineers tried to wave them off for safety sake, but they came on anyway. I was told explosion knocked all four off their bikes - good training. And as to the bridge, well it was in the training area, but it was also one of the main roads leading into the base. Lieutenant Torelli blew out an abutment, and not a span, so he needed a pile driver to reset the abutment and we didn't have a pile driver on base. I should have done more thinking about that demo mission before saying okay. It took six months to get that road back ready for traffic, but I never heard one thing about it - the 101st Airborne Division appreciated realistic training.
Assaulting Wire Obstacles with Bangalore Torpedos - More Good Training - 20th Engineer Battalion - Fort Campbell, KY
The best training is combined arms training. For that reason we arranged for one of our 20th Engineer Battalion combat engineer companies to be in support of one of the 101st Airborne Division brigades every time a brigade was in prime time training. One good scenario was for our engineers to build bunkers protected by wire obstacles and then support an infantry force to breach the wire and destroy the bunker complex. Breaching wire obstacles can be accomplished using Bangalore torpedos. Here's a definition: "A Bangalore torpedo is an explosive charge placed on the end of a long, extendible tube. It is used by combat engineers to clear obstacles that would otherwise require them to approach directly, possibly under fire. It has been estimated that the modern Bangalore torpedo is effective for clearing a path through wire and mines up to 15 meters long and 1 meter wide." Well, the way the Bangalore cuts wire is by exploding into thousands of metal shards that slice through the barbed wire. Of course the shrapnel isn't picky, it will slice through anything it comes in contact with. For that reason, in peacetime training once a Bangalore is slipped under the wire, it is ignited by time fuse so that everyone can get back a safe distance. A safe distance for a Bangalore torpedo explosion is something like more than a football field, and then you should be behind some type of protection. So one day one of my company commanders comes back from training with the infantry, in a scenario just as I described above. Only when our company commander had explained to the infantry types about the "safe distance rule" they just scoffed. "Don't worry," they told him. "Everyone will be hugging the ground." All I can say is that I'm glad I heard about it after-the-fact. The idea of all those soldiers being exposed to such danger and the possibility of something really bad happening is too much to think about. But the 101st loved it - good training!
Air Assault School at Age 38 - 20th Engineer Battalion - Fort Campbell, KY
Soldiers assigned to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) are expected to attend Air Assault School, known - at Fort Campbell anyway - as the toughest 10 days in the Army. As a battalion commander at Fort Campbell, I needed to go to AAS, even at age 38. Not wanting to fail - the washout rate was high - I tried to get some insight into the make-or-break aspects of the school. Most wash-outs occurred on Day One, a day of much yelling by the Air Assault School cadre, with numerous candidate push-ups for infractions of any kind. Strategy: maintain a low profile and do what you are told. The day also included running the Obstacle Course, followed by a two-mile run. The Obstacle Course consisted of about 15 log structures involving climbing, jumping, and balancing. The most intimidating obstacle was called the Weaver. It was like overhead bars except the bars were 6" diameter logs placed three feet apart. The object is to pass over and under the 14-or-so bars without falling off or touching the ground. The strategy for the Obstacle Course was to go over and practice in advance. We learned that lots of soldiers fail at the Weaver, mainly because they relied too much on arm strength. In practicing on the Weaver, we learned that it is much more a matter of technique; using your legs for leverage is 90% of the way toward success. A final two-mile run should be simple, because we normally ran four miles three times a week. The strategy for the two-mile run: don't be so worn out on the Obstacle Course that you don't have anything left. We also learned that the way to have something "left" for the run was to get on the Obstacle Course early and therefore finish early, so you could take a breather between the two events while other soldiers were finishing up. On Day One, the yelling and verbal harassment and pushups were pretty much as expected. I maintained a low profile and was fortunate that the cadre became occupied with a few other candidates who managed to get their attention. Eventually we were lined up in a large formation near the Obstacle Course for more yelling and pushups. But the time came when the AAS cadre had us in formation and commanded, "Fall out and fall in on the first obstacle." I ran as fast as I possibly could to get near the head of the line, as soldiers waiting to go on the course got to keep themselves occupied by running in place and singing Jodie chants. I needed my breathe for the course. The first obstacle was a high ladder, with log rungs about four feet apart. About a third of the way up there was a problem; I was almost swamped by a wave of young soldiers scrambling up the ladder and over me. I yelled with all my might, "You young guys need to me some space or you'll knock me off this thing!!" They looked up and said, "Oh, sorry," and gave me room. I finished the course without incident, got to rest maybe 15 minutes while others were finishing the course, and made the two-mile run. Nine more days, numerous pushups, many quizzes on rigging and procedures, and a 10-mile timed road march and it was all over. Air Assault!
We also knew that earning the Air Assault Badge was one of the keys to being viewed in a positive manner by 101st soldiers, but we had almost no quotas to the Air Assault School. So we always had soldiers there on DAY 1 as stand-bys, there to fill the spaces of any 101st soldiers who dropped out on that rigorous first day. Yes, we had almost all of the officers and a whole lot of in the battalion who earned the Air Assault Badge.
Getting Some Rest - SOCCENT - Tampa, FL
While on the major special operations exercise with SOCCENT, our host country provided billeting at their air base that was our main headquarters. I was put up in a one story cinder block house that had about five rooms, however there were only two occupants (probably in deference to our rank), a Navy Captain and me. Of the five rooms, there was only one bedroom and it was about 20 feet long and 12 feet wide. The room had about eight steel frame beds in it, and the Captain took the bed on one end and I took the bed on the other end. The Captain went to bed early, so every night by the time I turned in he was already asleep. Unfortunately, he snored so loud that I thought he would be sucking the plaster off the walls. So there I am the first night, really tired from the day's work, trying to find a way to get to sleep with him sounding like he had a diesel engine up his nose. By coincidence, I had some books or manuals that I had brought in, a stack maybe 10-12 inches high. So I got all ready for bed, turned out the lights (thought that didn't make the room very dark), and stood by my bunk with the books held over my head. In one smooth motion I let go of the books and slipped into bed. Bamm!!! The books hit the floor like an incoming rocket and my Captain friend came out of his bed like someone looking for the nearest bunker. I was secretively watching as he tried to figure out what happened - he never did. And I fell asleep before he was able to resume his rest. Worked every night for well over a week.
Engineer Ball Activities - 20th Engineer Battalion - Fort Campbell, KY
Most of the engineer units I served with had an annual Engineer Ball. Generally a good time. (Read about Hermie the Duck in the 130th Engineer Brigade section and read about Silver Bells in the 20th Engineer Battalion section). A ball includes officers in their dress blues and spouses in formal attire, music, a reception line, a guest speaker with hopefully not too boring a message, pictures, a nice meal, hopefully some decent entertainment, and an evening of dancing and fun. Entertainment was always a challenge, but we had a couple of things that normally were very well-received. In general, a slide show was always nice, provided you had the forethought to be taking pictures throughout the year. We used slide projectors with a dissolve unit and a show timed to music such as Lee Greenwald's Proud to be an American. (Today it's probably data projectors and Power Point or even more sophisticated video presentations.) Another favorite was a skit performed while singing the Engineer Song. (A quick Internet search will reveal its chorus and many verses.) We had about ten verses suitable for public presentation, and we would assign one or two of these verses to be acted out by each unit. For example Company D might have to act out the fifth and ninth verses. So imagine a battalion of officers in their dress blues at the front of the room singing the engineer song, with a "changing station" directly behind them that is mostly out of public view. As a verse was about to be sung, the unit responsible for acting out that verse would slip out of the chorus and go to the back where they would use the outfits and props they brought to act out their particular verse. At the conclusion of the chorus and just as their verse was to be sung, they would appear out front of the chorus and act. Invariably, the timing would be off, or the props would fail, or the costumes wouldn't be fully worn, and the result was hilarious.
121 Hours Planning the River Crossing - 317th Engineer Battalion - Eschborn, Germany
River crossing operations are highly complex, and involve combined arms and services working together to get forces from one side of the river to the other. Engineers are involved with the actual crossing, either by bridging or rafting. As our battalion in Europe was preparing for its annual field evaluation, we knew that the exercise would include planning for and executing a river crossing. My assistant operations officer came to me three weeks before the exercise and claimed to know the date, time, and place we would be tasked to accomplish this mission. He asked if he could plan for it in advance, and I said okay. Times flies and we were soon being put to the test. Since the rigors of war are hard to replicate in peacetime, a good alternative is to apply a lot of work and stress, and the higher headquarters running our evaluation did just that - they ran us all over the countryside, day and night for four straight days. On the fifth day, we got the mission we had been expecting: the task to plan and execute a river crossing. My assistant had hit it right on the nose in terms of date, time, and place. Only one problem, however. After four days of non-stop operations, my assistant had collapsed into an exhaustion-based sleep. I could not get him up to assemble what he had spent three weeks in developing, and the plans could not be found. So our battalion executed a river crossing operation with 121 hours of planning having gone into it: the 120 from my Assistant S-3 before the exercise, and the one hour that I used to throw it all together when I couldn't wake up my assistant or find his plans.
Wartime Lobster - CENTCOM - Tampa, FL
This is a story I didn't tell Bonnie, but she found out about it, so here it is now for everyone. When US Forces first deployed to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield (later to become Operation Desert Storm), there were no arrangements initially in place for billeting or feeding. For example, the CENTCOM Engineer Section was able to find billets in Riyadh only by staying at a US Army Corps of Engineers compound where the Corps was gracious enough to let us billet while more permanent arrangements were being made. For food we were given meal tickets that could be used at the Sheridan Hotel, right across the street from the Saudi Army Headquarters where the CENTCOM staff conducted its operations. Well, Wednesday night was Lobster Night at the Sheridan, and it turned out that our meal ticket was good for lobster night. So there we were in what was to become a war zone for all-you-can-eat lobster ... something DEFINITELY not something to write home about - but guess one of the crew must have blabbed to his wife because I ultimately caught the devil for having such a rough life. (By the way, the Sheridan soon caught on to our great deal and severely rationed the lobster from then forth.)
POW Camps for Iraqi Prisoners - CENTCOM - Tampa, FL
In the days leading up to Desert Storm, it became apparent that US forces would likely capture a l..a..r..g..e number of Iraqi soldiers, and that we would need to provide for this contingency. So a Military Police Brigade was activated from the reserves - a brigade that had the mission of operating POW camps. Of course the nature and size of this mission was something that the US military had not experienced since WWII, and - as a matter of fact - most of the documentation on how to handle and process POWs came from this era. Since POW camps would be something that the International Red Cross would inspect, there was a fair amount of attention to doing things right. So all of this occasioned a number of meetings between the US Army MP Brigade, the Army warfighting headquarters ARCENT, and their respective Saudi counterparts. First question: How many POWs might we have? We didn't know, but thought the number might be as high as 200,000. However, for planning, we started with 100,000. "No problem," said the MPs as they pulled out their manuals. "For that many POWs we'll need 27 miles worth of barbed wire to construct the camps." While we were there with our mouths open, they continued with the requirements according to their manuals. "... and each POW will need at least one change of clothes so we'll need 200,000 orange jumpsuits; 100,000 slippers; 100,000 sets of bedding; and 100,000 sets of NBC masks and protective gear (Hey, the International Red Cross requires that we protect captured combatants)." The camp would also need lights on the perimeter so there were umpty thousand lights and wiring and generators to power it all. And then there is daily food and water for 100,000 prisoners and the kitchen equipment to prepare and serve it. "And, by the way, we're going to expect some type of recreational equipment like soccer balls because the IRC will want to see that we are giving the POWs the opportunity to exercise." And then there was the issue of sanitation, as in "we'll need enough porta potties to serve 100,000, and since their culture is such that they are very modest people, you will have to find some options other than gang showers and toilets." It was interesting to attend these meetings and watch as the MPs would bring in more requirements every time, and we would all sit in silence watching the Saudi's reaction.
Be Polite - Have Some Tea - CENTCOM - Tampa, FL
As part of my Desert Shield duties as CENTCOM Engineer, I met weekly with a Saudi Brigadier General to provide a list of essential construction projects that U.S. forces needed as part of building up for what would be Desert Storm. These were requirements generated from the various service components that had to be justified to my office, and then I would present them weekly to the CENTCOM DCINC for command approval before going forward to the Saudis with them. The Saudi general was very professional, and very courteous. At each of our meetings he would offer me tea, and I would politely accept. The tea was hot and very sweet. I am a fan of unsweetened ice tea, but manners count. With the tea cup in my hand, I'd end up sipping on the tea and soon it would be gone. There must have been some secret signal because the instant it was gone there would be a soldier offering me more tea, that I would again politely accept. Despite my efforts otherwise, I would then end up sipping on that tea until it was empty, and guess who would be there offering a refill? To this day I have real trouble with sweetened tea, iced or otherwise.
Three More Desert Shield - Desert Storm Stories - But You have to Ask Me
Negotiating for Saudi Support - We needed a trip to the rug merchant
The Gulf Peace Fund - We owe Japan more than will ever be known by most people
Attack! The Great Desert Bridging Operation - What happens when two corps cross in the desert
Visits to Hawaii - CENTCOM - Tampa, FL
In January 1969, in the middle of my tour in Vietnam, I was given a Rest and Relaxation (R&R) tour in Hawaii for one week. The military flew from Vietnam and I arrived in Hawaii, where Bonnie was waiting to meet me.
We stayed at the Hilton on Waikiki beach and, specifically, in the Rainbow Towers. It was a wonderful but too short week.
About 25 years later, when I was assigned to the US Army Training Support Center at Fort Eustis, I was part of an assistance team that visited US forces in both in Korea and also in Hawaii. The scheduling was set up so that we arrived Wednesday night in Korea and spend Thursday and Friday with the assistance team visit, and then traveled on Saturday back to Hawaii for an assistance visit there on Monday and Tuesday.
But because, in coming back from Korea, we crossed the International Dateline, I found myself standing on Waikiki Beach at 6:30 AM Saturday morning. Hmmmmm.
The next year we conducted the same assistance visit with the same schedule. This time I again arrived in Hawaii very, very early Saturday morning but this time I proceeded to a rental car agency and was there to pick up Bonnie when she flew in from the United States.
Bonnie had kept the receipt for our room during our stay at the Hilton 25 years before and we wrote the Hilton in advance attaching a copy of the receipt and asking for (1) the same room and (2) the same rate, which was about $21 a day. The Hilton accommodated us with the same room but not the same rate though they did say they gave us a "good rateĒ quote.
We spent Saturday and Sunday together and then Bonnie shopped and had fun on the beach while I was working Monday and Tuesday.
And then we stayed over a few days as I took leave on the end of my trip. We had a glorious, fantastic time. We splurged and rented a convertible, and I remember driving through the pineapple fields at night with the wonderful smells coming at us.
We had even considered returning to Hawaii for our 50th anniversary.