Wednesday, September 09, 2015

US Army - Part Two

Wherein I sojourn in Texas (the only place in the world where you can stand up to your bum in mud and have the sand hit you in the face), do my RVN training, am posted to the Big Red One and end up in Norway

It is generally true that we humans have a very over-inflated opinion of our ability to affect events. We like to think we are in control. We like to believe, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”.

This is, in my experience, seldom true. You could just as easily argue that life is a series of unanticipated and unrelated accidents. My experiences in 69 - 70 - 71 prove this point rather nicely.

I had leave over Christmas 1969 and spent it in Independence. No-one else was about. Everyone was off was assisting Uncle Sam. I saw the family and a few friends. I booked my ticket to Texas on Trans-Texas Airways. I think I flew to College Station, Texas. I remember I had a lot of trouble getting a ticket. I soon found out why.

Fort Hood, Texas is near Waco. Near, in this context means Texas near, which is about about mid-distant between Waco and Austin. The adjacent town is called Killeen. It has little to offer the serving soldier, as Bell County was one of the dry counties in Texas. Even today just 11 the 254 counties in Texas are officially “wet”. It's a funny old place. You'd think with the sand hitting you in the face you could at least get a beer!

When I arrived in January 1969, there was a mass influx of personnel to Ft Hood. Why? Who knows? You may remember I got the word at Ft Bragg, “Who wants to go to Ft Hood?” and I said “Me!”.

There were so many troops arriving at the same time that our bags were left at the airport to be collected and delivered to the base over the next week or so.

I got lucky. I was assigned to Company C, 141st Armoured Signal Battalion. I was shown to the barracks. I met some guys. I easily made some friends. The lucky boys in my barracks had managed to wrangle their way into a real cushy job. I was soon included.

Most of these lads were ex-crew chiefs on UH1 helicopters. Returning from Viet Nam, they had time to do and somehow ended up at Ft Hood. (If the Army had any sense they would have just discharged them and saved the money they were paying them!) Anyway, these troops had somehow become the specialists in Public Address systems.

Our job was simple. Every time the Commanding General (or some other high-ranking officer) wanted to make a speech, we set up the PA system. There was, in true Army fashion, an officer in charge but, none of them who were ever assigned to us had any idea what we did, how we did it, where we did it or when we did it. Magic! (Actually, the poor officers were at the mercy of the PA troops. If one decided to become too ARMY for us, the next time the CG grabbed the mike he was likely to get an electrical shock – officers of that type didn't last long!)

The best part was we did no duties. No KP. No guard duty. No duties other than take care of the PA system. We had two trucks and a jeep – none of which were subject to the ordinary Motor Pool regulations. We alone could sign them out. We went where we wanted, when we wanted and with whom we wanted. I never did completely understand how we did it – but it worked. The ranking NCO was only a SP/5, but he ran the whole show and also rings around anyone who started poking their noses into our business.

Sound too good to be true! Well, it was not always plain sailing. For example the General might make a welcoming speech in the theatre. Excellent. Set up the mikes and amps, plug them in and then go backstage and have a nap! Simple!

At other times, he might want to address the troops on a rifle range or a tank firing range. Not so simple. First of all you needed power. That meant a gas-powered generator and a lot of power cable. Not too much of a problem for our trucks were a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of stuff we had “borrowed” from other units. So, we had the equipment. But, to use it outdoors we needed sandbags – lots of lovely sandbags. The Commanding General did not want to hear the noise of a generator. We would have to build a double or triple sandbag enclosure around the generator - !2 feet high and five or six layers thick. We put the generator inside. Standing outside you couldn't hear it from 10 feet away. Then all you have to do is run the microphone cable and you were in business.

In the course of all these endeavours, I got to see some amazing, not always pleasant, sights. There was the time some tank driver – who wasn't looking where he was going – managed to hang a track over the side of a concrete bridge over a stream. He flipped the tank into the stream bed on it's turret. Unfortunately, this was one of the few times a Texas stream was filled with water. The whole crew was trapped inside and drowned. So, we set up the PA equipment and the Commanding General made a speech. No idea what he said for them boys in the tank were as dead as door-nails.

Another good one occurred when some bright spark was cleaning a 175mm self-propelled gun. Somehow he managed to hit the wrong switch and the gun began to elevate fully. Then the breech began to move smartly towards the bottom of the carriage. Bright Spark managed to get himself wedged into a very small space between the breech and the carriage.

In order to get him out, numerous ingenious solutions were suggested and some were even tried. The only thing that worked ruined the gun. Two large, metal D-rings were welded onto the barrel of the 175 and two tow trucks pulled and lifted at the same time. Bright Spark got out, but the gun was, not entirely unexpectedly, completely ruined! The CG had a lot to say about that one!

In between all these exciting events I coped with the Texas summer. We were lucky. We had air-conditioned barracks. Not everyone did. We were give salt tablets with every meal. I learned to chew tobacco. I watched the Moon landing in July of 69. I was effectively killing time. I bought a small motorcycle – a 150 cc Honda – on the back of which one of my mates, Quigley, used to ride with an M14 (remember the endless supply of contraband?) complete with ammo he had stolen from the rifle ranges and take pot shots at cows. Ft Hood was “open range”.

Then, the time was up.

I got orders for Viet Nam in late August. I was posted to the 1st Infantry Division. I had injections for every disease known to man (and a few others). I did my RVN training – chiefly consisting of qualifying as Expert with the M16 and being eaten alive by Texas chiggers and I was all ready to go.

Then, I got a message to report to Company HQ.

The First Sergeant said that I was not going to Viet Nam. I asked him where I was going. He said he didn't know, but I was going somewhere. In short time, a big bunch shipped out for SE Asia. I hung around for about a week. Eventually the First Sergeant told me I was going to Norway instead. I said something like, “You've got to be shitting me – nobody goes to Norway!” He agreed but told me, nevertheless, I was going to Norway. I was joined in this effrontery to common sense by none other than SP/4 BJ Sievers, who I had not previously met, though we were in the same battalion. More will be heard of BJ anon.

(Having puzzled about this amazing event for years, I finally decided that it was all to do with the battery of tests you do when you are in Basic Training. Now, I was always good at tests so I scored highly. So did BJ. Therefore, when two guys who were in Norway left someone somewhere ran the replacement through the system our names came out.)

BJ and I suffered the ignominy of having to clear post – a ritual which involves taking a copy of your orders all over the place, giving a copy to the relevant authority (say the medical orderlies), and getting lots of stamps on the papers whilst all the while having to put up with, “So you guys off to the Nam, yeah?” “No, actually we're going to Norway.” “You gotta be shitting me! Hey sarge you gotta see this – these guys are going to Norway!”

We had become instant, small-time celebrities.

Within a few days, we had loaded my Honda in the trunk of BJ car – a Chevy four door as I remember and set off for KC. We had a week's leave. As BJ was from Iowa he said he would drop me off in Independence cause it was on the way. We cruised past Dallas and on to KC. He dropped me off and said we would meet up at JFK on September 6th or 7th or?

At the appointed date I flew to Kennedy, met up with BJ and flew to Norway via Iceland. In those days the old 707 couldn't do the whole trip without refuelling. I remember coming into Fornebu Airport in Oslo and the Captain saying it was 7 degrees! Fortunately, he was speaking Celsius.

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