By William Greenhut, Army
Writing Type: Prose
By Bill Greenhut
- Ossining, NY
“Why are you pushing it?” my distraught mother argued. I had just informed her that I was enlisting in the Marine Corps for officer training with two of my fraternity brothers. After all, I was about to be a college grad, and what was a diploma worth during wartime if not a commission? But when I told her I was going with them, the first thing she must have thought about was the death of my brother in a car accident some years earlier, distant in time but never far from the portrait that hung just there, in the living room. “There gonna get me sooner or later,” I replied. I could tell by the stare she reserved only for me that she was neither convinced nor satisfied. So, guilt being stronger than my will to defy her, ixnay to the Marine Corps.
My next attempt was Coast Guard officer training. I figured, in her mind, the personal safety quotient would be much higher. I took the exam and passed. Then I sat in a waiting room to be interviewed, a Princeton Tiger on one side, a Yale Bulldog on the other. If my Adelphi Panthers had a fight song, that may have been the time to sing it. The first question from one of the board members was, “How much experience do you have handling small boats?” That’s when I realized I was not Coast Guard bound.
I was running out of options. My time was limited; I had been receiving monthly questionnaires from the draft board as to my student status, and as soon as it changed, I was summoned to report for my pre-induction physical. I enlisted, trading an extra year (two if by draft, three by enlistment) for a choice of military occupation specialty. I chose the Signal Corps, to be trained as a communications specialist. I had no idea what that meant.
But I just wasn’t destined for signal school. Between the time I signed the forms and entered the Army, I was engaged and became more determined to support my future bride on an officer’s salary. Six months in, basic and advanced infantry training just concluded, I was at Ft. Dix, N.J., adrift without orders.
Having been designated an “OCS holdover,” I was awaiting an opening in an officer candidate school. I was given a temporary stripe as a private first class and assigned to a training company for drivers and clerks, counting heads and herding them from classroom to classroom. The duty demanded little. Monotony and boredom dragged me along with them.
Because I anticipated leaving, hopefully soon, it was a bother to sew the PFC stripes on my fatigues. The company commander called me into his office.
“Why haven’t you got the stripes on your uniform?” he wondered.
“I won’t be here long, sir,” I told him.
“If you look like a private, I will treat you like a private.”
Heeding his warning, I sewed them on that evening. The following day, he informed me that, if I was willing to commit to Infantry Officer Candidate School rather than wait for an opening elsewhere, I would be granted immediate leave and a reporting date for Fort Benning, Ga. Eager to move along with a purpose and end the uncertainty of waiting, I accepted.
Billy Lee Moore emerged from the barracks and stood beaming at us. He slowly raised
his arms to intensify the crescendo of noise emanating from the assembled
officer candidates responding to his silent exhortation. The company commander
probably assumed we, whom he had ordered to convene in the courtyard, were
expressing adulation toward him when, among us, we referred to this oft-occurring
display as “false enthusiasm.” We had no choice but to comply. Failure to meet his expectation with our
collectively rising basso profundo would result in repeating the process until it
satisfied his ego, which we had learned early in our tenure, knew no bounds.
On this day, the noise we generated before him was in genuine anticipation of Billy Lee’s revelations of our next postings and, perhaps, our destinies upon graduation a few weeks ahead. Once he lowered his arms and the decibels dissipated, he grabbed the list from the first sergeant and, starting with the As, began reading the assignments we were so anxious to hear. A sprinkling of candidates with physical limitations, precluded from combat roles, were assigned to further training in finance, supply, or personnel.
As expected, familiar basic training venues all over the United States were rolled out. We, designated by the Military Occupation Specialist Code number 1542, “Infantry Unit Commander,’ would fulfill a requirement of four to six months, probably as company commanders, in an administrative setting before we were entrusted with the responsibility for troops in a combat zone. In anticipation of several months of a stateside posting, I was to be married three days after graduation.
He called my name and bellowed “Korea.” I was stunned. I had no fear of serving in Vietnam; after all, I was young and trained tough. But Korea was an unknown quantity about which I was emotionally unprepared and confused.
Because Korea was not a combat zone, no administrative command time was required. Three weeks after the wedding, I was gone. But without knowing my final destination in country, the possibility that I could send for my wife once I settled in was something we could consider. I arrived on a Friday in late May and spent a pleasant weekend in the capital city, Seoul. On Monday, I boarded a bus sent by the Second Infantry Division. The driver wore a flak jacket and had a helmet and M14 rifle near at hand. The two-lane road was flanked by rice paddies occupying every segment of flattened, flooded earth stretching for miles before meeting the mountains. White-clad farmers with bare feet in dark muddy water rising above their ankles were stooped over walking backwards, planting green chutes by hand. Here and there, the bus veered around loaded oxcarts, what we would come to know as “honey wagons.” The countryside reeked of manure.
We passed through small villages -- huts of primitive construction, others with cinderblock walls, all with thatched roofs. I was transported so far north that there was not much left to South Korea. Within a few days, I was involved in operations along the Demilitarized Zone, dashing any hope of my wife joining me.
Combat operations were conducted all day, every day. I progressed from a platoon leader in a rifle company of a mechanized infantry battalion to company executive officer, then on to battalion anti-tank platoon leader and, finally, officer-in-charge of the battalion tactical operations center. I read about Vietnam in the military newspaper “Stars and Stripes,” but it was about as far away in my everyday thoughts as was my original enlistment commitment to the Signal Corps.
On April 1, 1968, by act of Congress, the Korean DMZ was designated a ‘hostile fire zone.’ The $65 a month pay increase for each of us was what the government calculated as the worth of a soldier engaged in risky business. During my 13-month tour, I had two weekend passes and no mid-tour leave. On April 25, the anniversary of my commission as a second lieutenant, my promotion to first was worth approximately $50 more per month. I’m sure my mom would agree: The Army got its money’s worth from me.