[Another story from my year in Vietnam. I didn't write them all during the 35th "anniversary" year so I'll keep posting them as they come to me.]
Being company clerk was good duty in Vietnam. Reasonably safe and predictable. Often boring and annoying but far, far better than being in the field. THAT was difficult and dangerous, along with boring and annoying. A Rear Job was definitely a good deal and company clerk was among the best Rear Jobs for an enlisted man. In many respects, the job was a natural for me–a staff position where I influenced events without direct authority or real responsibility. Authority was for NCO’s and officers. I was just a PFC and later Spec 4 trying to get through a year in Vietnam and get on with my life.
Early in my military “career”, I ended up behind a desk. During basic training, the company clerk learned that I could type and began using me to do his work. It was a good deal for us both and I hoped that I might find some opportunity to dodge an infantry assignment. That didn’t happen, although one of my fellow infantry trainees at Fort Lewis pulled it off almost as soon as we began infantry school. In Vietnam, I met Alpha Company’s clerk on Firebase Mace, a dusty enclosure of low, sandbagged structures, tents and shipping containers at the foot of a sharply pointed peak. The orderly room was small, cramped and dark. Fine red dust was everywhere.
In the field, I could only dream of living in someplace as “safe and comfortable” as Mace but I mainly focused on staying alive. Whatever hopes I might entertain were nothing compared to reality. Rumors abounded about troop reductions and “green line” duty (perimeter security at a large base). By 1971 the US was actually withdrawing forces but not fast enough to take me and my fellow grunts out of the field. Occasionally, someone would get a rear job (our machine gunner became company clerk in March) or some good luck (our mortarmen, who were serving as riflemen, were reorganized into a separate unit on the firebase and no longer had to patrol). Even a job on the firebase offered some relief from infantry patrol.
My shot at company clerk came in May. When our machine gunner became clerk in March, he was handed the job without training from his predecessor, who was himself a grunt, not a trained Army clerk. Now, two months later, he’s getting short and recommends picking a new clerk in time to actually orient him to the job. The Army has a special job code for company clerk based on actual training. Clerks with those skills were largely non-existent in field units, maybe some at higher headquarters but certainly not at the infantry company level. Which means some lucky grunt got the job.
By this time, I had transferred from my platoon to the company command post where I was the commanding officer’s radiotelephone operator. That was a decent job. I was still in the field but didn’t have to run ambush patrols and had access to information through the radio net. It separated me from my buddies in my old platoon, though and I missed that connection. Our artillery lieutenant told me that each platoon would nominate a candidate for clerk and they would select from that list. Since the process excluded me (not in a platoon), I volunteered my services to the captain, asking that he consider me along with platoon candidates I didn’t expect much since the captain didn’t approve of me (nor I, along with many others, approve of him). The artillery lieutenant was with the captain when I made my case–college degree, can type. During previous conversations, I had told the LT about working for the Army law school while in college. The LT helpfully related that qualification to the captain, leaving out the fact that I was a short order cook and bartender there.
Nothing in combat is certain beyond hardship. Expecting anything else only disappoints. I had learned this lesson beginning with my first orders to infantry school all the way through deployment and combat. So I was surprised to hear I was chosen to be the next clerk. My buddy, Tony, who certainly had the same qualifications I did, still claims that I short-circuited his opportunity for the job. He’s right, even if that was not my intent. No request was ever made to the platoons for their recommendations. The captain must have just gone with my request. Maybe he just wanted to be rid of me.
Whatever the reason, I was scheduled to begin training as replacement clerk in early June, six weeks before Larry, the current clerk, was scheduled to return home. Not only would I be able to learn my job ahead of time but I could help Larry sort out the mess he inherited from his predecessor. Battalion headquarters had moved to the big Army base at Bien Hoa in April when the First Cavalry Division left Vietnam, leaving behind a separate brigade of infantry, artillery and air assault battalions. Instead of sandbagged quonset huts, the company was housed in one plywood building and a second building with wood framed walls and floor under a canvas tent roof. Between the two buildings at either end, were six foot high sandbagged culverts laid perpendicular. Both buildings were surrounded by four foot blast walls constructed of sand filled bags and 55 gallon drums. Not much but it was home. A bed, showers, decent mess hall, reasonably safe. Okay.
My first day went well until the battalion executive officer, a major, saw me listed on our daily personnel report as a clerk in training. His goal in life was to keep as many men in the field as possible and he thought six weeks of training was excessive. I was ordered back to the field. Disappointed and unsure if I would actually be clerk, I rejoined the company while it was resupplying on the firebase but I was in a kind of limbo. All my old jobs were taken and no one had much use for a body that wasn’t going to be around for long (assuming I ever went back as clerk). After a week or so and the eruption of yet another cyst (a pretty typical malady for GI’s who can’t shower or really even wash up for days at a time), the first sergeant wangled a medical restriction that gave me cover to stay in the rear. I was finally done with the field.
Larry moved out of the clerk’s hooch and into the transient tent, giving me my first permanent bed in almost a year. I had to put up with the mail clerk’s buddies who frequented the hooch after partying elsewhere. That wasn’t too bad since I was at work most of the time and the visits ended when the mail clerk left the company about the same time as Larry. The new mail clerk was from outside the company (he was a former grunt who re-enlisted after a firefight so he could acquire a non-infantry job code and stay out of the field permanently). Things quieted down considerably.
Now my energy focused on understanding and learning the job to make myself indispensable. My typing was so-so–passable but good enough for the Army if I was careful. I quickly learned that my most important duty each day was to provide battalion HQ a Personnel Daily Status Report so the major could track his field strength. Beyond that, it was paperwork for leave, promotion lists, processing guys in and out of the unit, legal papers (mainly petty violations, although we did have one court-martial for refusing orders to deploy) and endless busy work. One thing I did not understand and soon learned that I did not have to understand, was the Morning Reports that came to the company from somewhere at brigade HQ. The Morning Report is the official record of the unit (who comes in, goes out and the authority therefore) and while it was similar to the daily report I submitted to battalion HQ, it was not identical. Nobody seemed to care so I didn’t either. I just made a file to accumulate the reports in case anyone asked about them.
Like any job, company clerk is a learning experience, learning procedure and how to work with others. My supervisor was the first sergeant, invariably known as Top. Each of the three first sergeants I served with was a definite learning experience. In my unit the first sergeant basically organized and directed the company’s rear operations. When the company was in the field, he arranged hot food, clean clothes, mail, rations, ammo and other supplies every three days. He did the same on a daily basis when the company returned to the firebase. Instead of hot food, which was provided by the mess hall, the first sergeant arranged for cold beer and soda paid by a voluntary fund which he administered. The clerk handled the first sergeant’s paper work so that he could make sure resupply went smoothly.
At least that was the idea. Top M___, the first sergeant when I became clerk, was reasonably easy going and competent, early to mid-40's. He’d been first sergeant since probably mid-March. I remember the resupply and support I got in the field and firebase during that time were decent. Top M was a good mentor, willing to explain things to me and offer helpful advice; he looked and acted pretty much as I expected a senior non-commissioned officer to act. He drank, which meant that I sometimes heard boozy soliloquies on life, the Army and war if I were working late in the orderly room but as Army supervisors go, I liked working for him.
Top M___ was scheduled to leave in August. Sometime in late July his replacement joined the company, a tall, almost gangly, first sergeant with about 15 years service, someone who had climbed the ranks quickly. I looked forward to working with him when I returned from my stateside leave. When I returned Top M___ was gone, as expected. So was the young first sergeant, now assigned to Charlie Company. In his place was acting first sergeant A___, a wiry, gray haired 27-year sergeant first class (two grades below first sergeant) with a cock-of-the-walk attitude. He claimed service in WWII and Korea in addition to Vietnam, boasted of a Silver Star and five Bronze Stars, claimed to have been busted back from full first sergeant. No one was sure why. But we were all sure of his claim to run Alpha Company. He made no secret of how important he was to the company and its mission.
Also at this time Alpha Company had a new executive officer. The XO was the officer in charge of the company’s rear. LT B___ was XO with Top M___. He had been third platoon leader when I was in the field with first platoon. Third platoon was known as the drinking platoon and LT B___ had been notoriously drunk during the cook out at the March stand down. Even so, I think he had been a competent leader. I don’t recall any serious casualties while he was platoon leader. As XO, he pretty much did whatever Top M asked him to do.
The new XO was different. LT D___ was a overweight barrel of a man, a former Marine NCO who switched services and went to OCS. Unlike any of his predecessors, D___ had not served in the field. Rumor was that he was too fat for the field. Another LT in the battalion, even fatter, was said to be in the same situation. So right off he had no credibility. And right off, he was in competition with first sergeant. They both claimed to be in charge and ordered me to ignore the other, which I largely ignored. Pretty much had to. There was a lot of routine to running the company and the clerkI kept a lot of it going. I just had to work around this ungainly pair.
Top A___ was always boasting of his accomplishments and was very, very enthused about being in the First Cavalry Division. In an infantry unit where most members took clothes from a common pile, Top A___ sported a wardrobe of crisp jungle fatigues, emblazoned with all requisite insignia and badges, including the big First Cavalry patch. He had long wavy, silver gray hair, combed straight back. He told us he won his Silver Star fighting with the Cav in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965 (a seminal battle in First Cavalry history, one big enough to get noticed in the States) and constantly threatened to send everyone to the field, including me, when they displeased him. I never took the bluster seriously but it was wearing and often grating.
The LT was, in contrast, just tedious. When not fighting with the first sergeant, he lectured me on proper Army regulations and procedure. He just went on and on. It was fun, though, to watch the LT and first sergeant argue, which was good for me. As long as they were pre-occupied with each other, they couldn’t bother me. But it also meant not attending to their duties, particularly resupply, which meant fewer hot meals, erratic beer and soda supply, dirty ammunition. One guy even mentioned it to his Congressman while home on leave provoking a Congressional inquiry (another story). The company experienced some of its most difficult combat during this time. In September, Alpha Company served as a blocking force for an Australian led operation that ended up with several Australian dead, including maybe even one executed. In October, the Alpha Company was ambushed while flying out from a landing zone, with about 30 guys wounded; about 10 to 15 were evacuated and never heard from again. With this kind of shit going on, the bullshit from the first sergeant and the LT was really just background static.
Salvation came in November. On the day before my birthday, a real first sergeant showed up and Top A___ was out. The new first sergeant was fairly young and had come through the ranks fast. He was not happy about doing this fourth tour in Vietnam, especially when it took him away from an ideal assignment where he had, shall we say, a very relaxed schedule. But here he was, there was a job to do and he got on with it. By the end of his firsrt day, he asked me about the LT, using the term “fat boy”. I answered candidly and told Top the uncomplimentary corruption of the LT’s name that we used as his nickname. He chuckled.
This new Top was shrewd and competent. He told the battalion commander about rear duty LT’s who had never served in the field. The LT’s re-assignment came soon after. He was replaced with LT C___, the “boy lieutenant”, who looked all of 18, from first platoon. My friend , Tony, who finally had a rear job as armorer, had been LT C___’s radio operator and thought well of him. The new XO had been in the field about six months so he was due for a rear job. He was more than happy to leave everything to Top, signing wherever an officer needed to sign for the company.
Life under the new administration was fine. Top ran a tight ship and I was happy to work in a more functioning environment. And I was getting short. Although I had extended my tour until early February to qualify for an early discharge, the Army dropped 30 days off my tour so I would be going home at New Year’s. I wrote about that time in a previous post
so I won’t repeat it here other than to say that life was much, much better in my last days in Vietnam.
When I joined the Army, I signed up for two years. That meant I did not get to choose my assignment. My thinking was that, as a college graduate and a volunteer, I would qualify for something safe and I wouldn’t have to put up with the Army for three years. My gamble didn’t pay off. At least not until I endured a few months of infantry patrol. In the end, neither my college degree nor my volunteer status did me much good. What saved my ass was that typing class I took in high school. And whatever complaints I had about life in the rear always recognized that others had it much, much worse than me.