combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 02 Spring ©Apr 2006

A Different Kind of Combat

          Sometimes, the first kind of combat a soldier faces is with himself. It doesn't matter if he goes on later to earn a Combat Infantryman's Badge or winds up stocking shoes as a quartermaster, there can still be tough questions along the way. The toughest of all are the private ones.

          It was during the Cold War and the Army was trying to make an artilleryman out of me, and not having much luck. When you've failed algebra three times in high school and once in college, math is not your thing. Not even when it comes to the relatively simple business of reading mills and leveling bubbles and keeping a 105mm howitzer between the aiming stakes on the Third Infantry Division's artillery range at Fort Benning, Georgia.

          Because when you fire 1,800 yards short at a range of 2,000 yards in battery direct fire, it doesn't go over well. Twenty mills just doesn't equal 2,000 yards.

          But at least the Army didn't make me start my training over, or send me back to my previous home, the division's 7th Infantry Regiment.

          What I was really worried about however, was the same thing that was worrying everyone else in the battery. None of us was soldiering by choice, since we were all draftees and all of us were concerned about where we might be headed.

          A Permanent Change of Station was coming soon and that was all that we talked about. Korea – cold, distant and still dangerous – loomed large in our thoughts, despite the so-called cease fire of July 1953, that supposedly ended three years of war with both the Chinese and North Korean communist invaders of South Korea.

          The suspense was particularly hard on Gray, a quiet, skinny, deeply religious farm boy from Virginia. Gray was the sole support of his widowed mother and probably never should have been drafted in the first place. His $79 monthly pay wasn't going very far. He had asked the Red Cross for assistance in perhaps helping to arrange a compassionate discharge. No response.

          It was an April evening after chow and the end of duty hours. The sun was sinking behind the pines over where the First Recon Squadron of the Seventh Cavalry made its home near the railroad tracks at Sand Hill. We were almost six weeks into our eight week training cycle.

          Hutt, a Brooklyn boy who'd never felt dirt or grass under his feet until he was drafted, was trying to describe a frightening animal he'd seen in the field that day. We tried to explain to him that it was just a small brown rabbit.

          Hutt shook his head emphatically. "No rabbit," he said. "I've seen rabbits in Macy's department store window at Easter. They're big and white and have pink eyes."

          We were still laughing when two Spec-4s in Class A uniform came walking up to where we were sitting. We froze instantly, as still as Hutt's rabbit. Strangers in Class A uniforms make trainees nervous. They certainly weren't any cadre we'd seen, and even as Spec-4s, they were carrying more rank than made us comfortable.

          Then, too, they were wearing AG brass. The Adjutant Generals office had no business with us.

          Or so we thought.

          One of the Spec-4's nametags said Kite; the other said Abbott.

          "I guess you guys are looking forward to your orders," Kite said.

          "I guess," said Tanner, a redheaded soldier from Indiana.

          "Well, we can help," said Abbott.

          "Yes, indeed," said Kite. "We work in personnel."

          And then they laid it on us.

          It was a simple racket, really, and one that they said they'd run successfully a couple of times already. As personnel clerks, they were given the levies that came down from the Pentagon for new orders. For $25, they would try to see that each soldier got the assignment he wanted. In any event, each got a guarantee that he wouldn't be sent to Korea.

          Even the $25 didn't have to be paid until after each soldier had received his preliminary warning order showing where he was scheduled to go. Of course, if the money wasn't paid then, the warning order would be changed for something worse.

          "Give us your names, your serial numbers, and the three places you'd most like to be assigned," Kite said. "That's all there is to it."

          "We'll be in touch," Abbott added. "And keep your mouths shut."

          There was a lot of whispered talk that night about who was going to do what in two days when Kite and Abbott came back to get names, numbers, and desires for assignment. It was a tempting offer for lots of guys. Michaelis was from Massachusetts and wanted desperately to get married and stay with his bride. A post at Fort Devans would be ideal. Collins was from Kansas and wanted Fort Riley. Dumont had a brother in Germany. His biggest fear was Korea.

          As for me, I didn't care. I wasn't going to touch the offer anyway – partly because I didn't have the $25 and partly because of the Dear John letter I'd gotten from my fiancée two weeks earlier.

          They say that knowing how to type is a big asset in the Army. Not always. Our company clerk was an idiot and when the first shirt found out I'd been a newspaperman, he figured that I could clean up all the left over clerical work. Which meant that after duty hours, I still got to pull some extra duty.

          I got back to my barracks. Everyone else had gone to chow – everyone except Gray. He was sitting on the edge of his bunk.

          "C'mon troop," I said. "Let's eat."

          He shook his head. "Not hungry."

          "Bad sign," I said. "You sick?"

          He shook his head again, then he asked, "What are you going to do? ... about the orders, I mean."

          "Not for me," I said. "Frankly, I'm too pissed-off to care."

          "So what should I do?" he asked. "You know about my mother. If I could get to Fort Lee ..." he let it hang.

          "Fort Lee's for quartermasters," I said. "Not too much demand there for 141.10's," I said, citing the basic Military Occupational Specialty for artillerymen. "That's gonna be the big thing. I don't see lots of posts with guys who want to go there that have a need for artillerymen, and that's what the levy is going to come down for. These personnel drones might be able to say who goes where, but they can't change your MOS, not at their level."

          "This isn't right," Gray said. "Suppose I buy a set of orders that would have gone to someone else? That'd be just as bad as if he bought mine, wouldn't it?"

          "You know what they say in the Army," I replied. "Just take your tough shit card to the chaplain and get it punched."

          Gray looked at me for an extra beat before he spoke. "I may just do that," he said.

          A week later when the warning orders came down, every single set was for overseas. Nobody was going to be staying home with Susie, or Wendy, or Colleen, or any other honey either.

          Three days later at 4 a.m., the lights in our barracks snapped on and the aisles were filled with screaming MPs. We were rousted out into the dark, shoved into deuce-and-a-half trucks, and hauled off to the stockade for questioning.

          Just passing through the stockade was enough to put the fear of God and George Patton in all of us. I couldn't help thinking about that movie, From Here to Eternity, and James Jones' novel of the same name, about stockade life in Hawaii in 1941.

          We were taken into a bare room, one at a time – bare, that is, except for two huge Military Policemen standing in the corners, and two Criminal Investigation Division agents, in plain uniforms devoid of rank, sitting at a table.

          There were some papers on the table before them to which they made reference. The questions were quick and to the point. What did you know? What was your participation? Who else was involved? Did you pay the $25? What posts did you request? What were you promised?

          And, finally, how do you think you're going to like the stockade?

          The questioning didn't much frighten me, because I knew I had had no part in the scheme, and I imagine that they knew as much from the information they had collected. I didn't know exactly how they had collected their evidence but I had my suspicions.

          I had another thing or two going for me. Before being drafted, I had been a police reporter for several newspapers. I knew cops, and how they operated. I was also a bit older than a lot of other draftees, some of whom were still teenagers on their first trip from home.

          When the questioning ended, we were kept together in a large room. Some tried to tough it out, but others admitted right away that they had told everything they knew. The room smelled of sweat and fear. Late in the day, we were loaded back onto the trucks, returned to the battery area, and confined to barracks with nothing to eat but water and field rations thrown in the door to us like so much dog food.

          It was shortly after midnight that I awoke, burning with fever, coughing and gasping for breath. Like half the barracks, I had been sniffling and coughing and running a low grade fever for about a week. A cold bug, I figured.

          But this was something different. I managed to drag myself to my feet, hoping somehow that if I got to the door, some fresh air might help. I never made it. The last thing I remembered was stumbling over a footlocker, collapsing onto the barracks floor, and dimly hearing the voice of one of our MP guards probing me with questions I could not understand.

          I awoke in the hospital at Main Post. Double pneumonia. Fever, weakness, sleep, and penicillin shots in the butt every six hours. I got so I could sleep right through them. When I managed to get to my feet, the chief ward nurse, a captain who must have served in the Spanish-American War, chewed me out for not having shaved. But of course, I had no gear.

          A Red Cross lady came by, and I asked if she could get me a razor. She looked as if I'd asked for the private key to the general's john, and offered me a single doubled-edged blade instead. I told her I didn't want to cut my throat, just shave it, and she went off in a huff. A doc, who I later found had spent a year in a TB hospital as a patient, finally found me not only a razor, but a toothbrush.

          A week later, I was trucked back to the artillery battery, ten pounds lighter and too weak to fight a Georgia mosquito. The barracks were empty – except for Gray. He was sitting there, waiting for the court-martial the next day. He had, in the end, done just what I had suggested. He had been to see the chaplain, a middle-aged Methodist captain with both a Silver Star and a Purple Heart from Korea. The chaplain had put the CID in touch with Gray with instructions to take careful notes.

          Gray was ragged-out when he came back to the barracks the next night. "They had some big civilian lawyers from Boston," he said. "They really worked me over."

          "So," I said, "how did you handle it?"

          Gray looked at me as if I had just asked a village idiot question. "I just told the truth," he said.

          "And the verdict?" I asked.

          "Guilty," he said. "Sentencing tomorrow, but I don't have to be there for that. The CID man said they'll get dishonorable discharges, for sure. Maybe even hard time in Leavenworth, though he thought it might go easier on them since all the orders were bad ones, and no money actually changed hands."

          I had to go back to the doc in the morning, and when I returned, Gray was gone. There was a note on my bunk. "My orders just came in," it read. "Korea. Thanks for being my friend. You give good advice."

          I balled up the note and tossed it in a butt can. I wondered what had happened to his appeal for a compassionate discharge and help from the Red Cross. Maybe they'd offered him a razor blade, instead.

          I got up and went over to the orderly room and found the first sergeant.

          "Docs have cleared me for duty," I said, handing him my slip from the dispensary. "Don't guess you know where my orders are?"

          He looked at me as if I were an unpleasant bug – a first sergeant look.

          "Matter of fact, I do. Very strange," he said. "Seems they're short a couple of typists at division personnel. You report to 3rd Admin Company tomorrow, 0800, for TDY – temporary duty, if you don't know what that means."

          Which is what I did, and which is where I stayed, until the division shipped out to Germany the following year, and I was too short to go with them. Got sent to Headquarters, G-2, XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg – which was not a pleasant place to be if you were a leg – having to wear airborne uniforms but without wings.

          I never heard from Gray again, and I don't know what happened to his mother, but I suspect I know what happened to Gray. He slept well, wherever he was. Having the courage to do the right thing has that result.

          Not all combat is the same.

[authorial note: in this story, the names have been changed to protect the guilty]

by Robert P. Hilldrup
... who is a Cold War veteran of the U.S. Army, with service in the Third Infantry Division and the XVIII Airborne Corps; he's the author of more than 800 articles, book reviews, and short stories in more than sixty magazines, as well as fiction and non-fiction books.

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