Death From Above

I never know what memory might happen to pop into my head at any given time. While I used to just ruminate and ponder on them for a few minutes and move on, these days I try to at least make a few notes on my iPhone for a story idea to be developed later.

The older I get the less I am able to run easily through my memory banks with total recall…it takes some more pondering and work to coax the memories back.  These playing cards popped into my head the other day and the first thing I did was go to eBay to see if I could find one of the cards to add to my small bookcase of dad’s military mementos. I found they were very rare, but I did find some information I was unaware of.

When dad came back from Vietnam in the summer of 1966 he brought several duffle bags and a foot locker back with him. These were filled with the paraphernalia of a soldier and stored away along with another 20 years worth of soldiering in an area underneath the stairs that was commonly called “The Cave”, as it was not easily accessed and you had to crawl in on your hands and knees.

Naturally, this was attractive to us kids as we could grab a flashlight and secretly dig through all kinds of cool stuff we weren’t supposed to touch. One of the things in the footlocker was a number of playing card decks like the one below. Having skulls, we naturally thought they were very cool and swiped a deck or two to play with. We thought it was weird that some of the decks only had 52 aces of spades, but some were just regular playing cards.

1/8 Cavalry Death Card

When dad starting finding them spread all over the house we got a spanking and told that the cards were special and we needed to leave them where they were.

We didn’t know why they were special, we just thought they were cards and there were several decks.  As we got a little older the story came out that these were “Death Cards” from Vietnam used by soldiers as calling cards and left on dead enemy soldiers to let the Viet Cong know who they were up against.  Well, that only made them more desirable since we constantly playing Army all over the neighborhood… so we started leaving a card on enemy neighbor kids as we “killed” them.

Most of my life I just assumed these cards were used by the entire 1st Cavalry Division and were probably still very common.  I have learned since the cards were designed by Captain Mozey, the commander of Charlie Company, my dads unit, and were unique to the men in the 8th Cavalry “Jumping Mustangs”, which were an Airborne/Air Assault unit, hence the “Death From Above”.

Some of Charlie Company in Vietnam,
1965-1966. Capt. Mozey is crouching on the left.
Some of Charlie Companies finest.
Vietnam 1965-1966

Here is some historic information I discovered while researching the cards written by retired Sergeant Major Herb Friedman, who researches and collects death cards:

There is a confirmed report that this card was designed by Captain Mozey of C Company, 1st Battalion of the 8th Cavalry Regiment “The Jumping Mustangs” during his Vietnam tour of 1965-1966. A member of the unit told me that:

The calling card was placed on the chest or tucked, slightly, in the shirt pocket.  But as I said before we did not use it except to say “We were here.” The actual “Death From Above” saying was a WWII phrase. As of August 1966 the 1st & 2nd of the 8th “Jumping Mustangs” were all carrying a deck of “Death From Above” cards. 

Specialist 4 Kevan Mynderup, a former member of “Charlie” Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1968 adds:

I can confirm that the “Death From Above” card was designed by Captain William B Mozey in either late 1965 or early 1966. When Bill took over the company the nickname was changed to “Death From Above” and the unit members got a full deck of the playing cards along with a Black Silk scarf with the “Death From Above” and airborne Skull on it. The phrase was banned in the Battalion Area, so the guys said “DFA” until the brass figured that out. It was an Article 15 offense to say either. The company was broken up at least 2 times because of “DFA” and the cards and scarves disappeared, but returned in 1968 when I was with the company. Only Charlie 1/8th Cavalry was known as “Death From Above” at this time. The other companies had their own nicknames as did all the companies in the 1st Air Cavalry Division.

Although Mozey has been credited with designing the cards, it appears that he had them printed in the United States. One complete deck was found in an old foot locker and the cards turn out to have been printed by: Brown & Bigelow, St. Paul, Minn., U.S.A. Text on the actual deck adds the following information: The Business builders, 55164, A Saxon Industrial Company. 

Showing what the Ace of Spades death card looked like. Some of the decks only had 52 of this single card.

Brown & Bigelow of St Paul, Minnesota, was a leading producer of playing cards in the U.S. from the late 1920s to the 1980s. Brown & Bigelow manufactured playing cards under several brand names, as well as novelty and advertising decks. There seems to be no record of them producing Death Cards, so perhaps because of the political situation in the United States the company chose to keep their participation in the production of these cards quiet.

Former Specialist Fourth Class Vic Castle told me that when he arrived in Vietnam as a member of the 1/8th Cavalry on 1 May 1967 they showed him the death cards and black silk scarf and told him their use was prohibited. He says:

The clerk calls out my name. I get in Jeep for short ride to 1/8th Cavalry. There is a large sign that says, “1/8th Cavalry: Airborne, Air Assault, Air Mobile.” Out walks this Sergeant who greets us. I tell him I think there has been a mistake. I haven’t had Jump training. He says, “Don’t worry about it; we don’t give you a damn parachute anyway. He assigns me to A Company. He shows me the Death card and the “Death From Above” black scarf and tells me if I get caught with either it is an Article 15.

He remembers that some unit members were court-martialed while using the cards. He said:

I was told that the men were carving a Cavalry patch on a dead Viet Cong’s chest and stuck the playing card in his mouth. There was a soldier from an engineer outfit there and he took some pictures. He sent them back to his father who apparently was not amused. An investigation followed and then a trial of a First Lieutenant and a buck Sergeant. I think the trial was held in St. Louis and both men were sent to Ft. Leavenworth.

It seems to me that the two men were tried for abusing the body of the dead Viet Cong rather than the use of the death cards. Such charges have occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems perfectly acceptable to shoot a terrorist a dozen times or hack him to death with a bayonet, but abuse the body in any way afterwards and it is a criminal act. How strange.

Curiously, the “Death from Above” death cards reappeared again 30+ years later when American troops were sent to the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm.”

From Ron Doyler:

“There exists another form of these cards. Brown and Bigelow out of Minnesota produced them.  William Mosey had them made when he was with the CAV in VN. The cards were done in full decks of regular suits and also ace of spades only. I have two of which were gifts from the Colonel when I was a boy. The cards are all black background with a winged skull and DEATH from ABOVE. The Colonel coined this phrase and had a unit flag also made. If I remember correctly from my conversation with him the director of Apocalypse Now had to gain permission to use this in the film from Col Mosey. Over the years the Col. has given all the cards away.”

I find the background of all this fascinating, as it has been part of my life for over 50 years now.  I even wrote “Death From Above” on my climbing helmet back in the 90’s as a sort of karmic dare to the powers that be, as rocks falling from above was one of the more common dangers we encountered while climbing.

Death From Above on my climbing helmet

While these were just playing cards, I shudder to think how many of mom and dad’s mementos we destroyed over the years when we were kids. After a while all the cards had been lost or destroyed, but there was much more.

There were some cool old suitcases that had stickers of where they had traveled stuffed full of cool stuff they had stashed away, like mom’s old brown army boots, both their uniforms and patches, medals and other hard won awards, post cards and various souvenirs, leaded crystal from Austria, and on and on. We were a half dozen destroying locusts devouring everything in the house. At least the internet allows us to reclaim some some of the bits and pieces of our history.

Brothers in Arms

I happened to channel surf past an episode of the PBS series “We’ll Meet Again” that is named “Korean War Brothers In Arms”.  This title caught my eye as I did a tour of duty up near the Korean DMZ and often think of my brothers in arms from that wild tour.

DMZ
Les on a Cobra crash recovery mission near the Korean DMZ 1979

I also happen to admin a Facebook Group dedicated to the small garrison where I was stationed in Korea, Camp Stanley.  This camp was in constant use from 1957 until it was closed for good November of 2017.

I ride herd over a couple of thousand soldiers representing 5 decades of service that have year-long hardship tours at that camp in common. They now reminisce together on a daily basis and find old buddies they haven’t talked to in years.  It is truly gratifying to see a couple of old soldiers take up where they left off, as only those that have shared hardship together can.

So, I decided to park the remote and see if there was anything interesting about the show to share with my buddies.

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Camp Stanley, Korea Group

I hadn’t seen or heard of the documentary series that describes itself like so:

We’ll Meet Again is a documentary series reported and executive produced by Ann Curry. Each episode introduces us to two people who were affected by momentous events in American history. We follow them on a journey of detection as they look for a long-lost friend, family member or significant stranger.

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I got a little more interested as I began understanding where the show was going…looking up long lost friends or others that had an impact on their life that they have lost contact with.

That played into another passion I have, which is family history and genealogy. I can’t get enough of shows like “Who Do You Think You Are”, “Finding Your Roots” and “Long Lost Family”.  I spend an inordinate amount of time researching my family’s history on various genealogy related sites and find our stories extremely fascinating.

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But that’s not what made me decide to put these words together.  One of the stories in the show reminded me of a similar situation concerning my father. The story on TV was about a man whose life had been heavily influenced by the heroic actions of two of his lieutenants during a period of heavy combat during the Korean War.

To briefly summarize the story, the young marine was from a very broken home whose mother was in the service and had left him several times, and he had never known his father.  Essentially an orphan, he joined the Marines to feel like he was a part of something bigger and to serve his country.

jo.pngHe was sent to war in Korea and on one particular occasion his artillery unit came under very heavy enemy artillery bombardment. All communications had been completely cut off.  This went on all day as part of a major Chinese offensive.

His unit, as well as many others, was in chaos and taking heavy losses. With no communications with HQ they were in danger of being routed…until these two lieutenants started making their way to each of his artillery unit’s gun positions, giving firing instructions and encouragement all around.

This young Marine was incredulous that these two officers were willingly placing their lives in extreme danger by moving from position to position, with no cover, and talking to each gun crew to calm them down and get them back in the fight. This is of course how the Marines want all their officers and NCOs to behave, but in real life the instinct to stay alive often keeps ordinary men hunkering down in their foxholes, which was the case for the young Marine.

That left such a huge impression on him as a young man that he never forgot it.  He determined to live his life with the example set by these two brave men that were dedicated to getting the mission accomplished and caring for their men, no matter the risk to themselves.  It affected him so deeply that after living most of his life, he wanted to reconnect with these men that had meant so much to him and let them know he viewed them as heroes and as examples to pattern his life. While he found both men to have passed on, he did eventually connect with their families to express to them how he felt about their loved ones.

It was at this point in the show that I remembered a phone call that occurred just after my father had passed away in 2006. I had flown back to Ohio for my father’s funeral and to help get the estate settled. One day we happened to be gathered around my parent’s dining room table, spread with insurance forms, bank account info, hospital bills and all the other various “important” paperwork from 80 years of life.

The phone rang and my sister Melody answered and chatted briefly trying to answer someone’s questions before waving me over and handing the phone to me and said it was someone that knew dad.  It turned out the call was from one of my father’s brothers in arms from Vietnam. He had served as a Platoon Leader, with my dad serving as his Platoon Sergeant.

They served together in Charlie Company, 1st Platoon, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment.  They were nicknamed the Jumping Mustangs as they were an airborne unit. As a reference, they were a sister unit to the 1/7th Cavalry Regiment depicted in the Movie “We were Soldiers” with Mel Gibson and went through identical training.  Both units traveled by ship together as the first divisional unit to arrive in Vietnam as the war heated up in 1965, the 1st Cavalry Division (Air Mobile) based at An Khé in the Central Highlands.

Jumping Mustang Cert.jpg

Back in 1965 Vietnam, the man on the phone was a very green 2nd lieutenant, right out of college, that had suddenly been put in charge of leading 50 or so young infantrymen into combat.  A platoon’s leadership was typically a 1st or 2nd Lieutenant, the lowest of the officer ranks, known as the Platoon Leader, and a senior non-commissioned officer or NCO known as the Platoon Sergeant.

Dad On Sand Bags In 'Nam_1
Dad in Vietnam, 1965

The NCO’s always have much more experience than a butter-bar, a nickname given for the single gold bar denoting their rank. The senior NCOs, having spent years attaining their rank, had much more experience and had typically served in combat. The Platoon Sergeants ranks were usually Staff Sgt. (E-6), or Sgt. First Class (E-7).  There are then 4-6 Staff Sgt’s (E-6), or Sgt’s (E-5) that serve as Squad Leaders for teams of 8-10 men.

My dad was a career soldier with 20 years in the Army, having joined in 1943 and fought in terrible conditions against the Japanese in the Pacific theater in WWII, held the Yugoslavian General Tito’s communist aggression at bay in the Free Territory of Trieste just after WWII and held the line against Chinese and North Koreans on the 38th parallel during the Korean War.  Vietnam was to be his final war before he retired in 1966.

This lieutenant was calling, it turned out, because he had been thinking about dad and how, in his words, “he was a real old-school hard-ass, but SFC Profitt saved my dumb, green ass so many times over there”.

He just wanted to touch base to see how he was doing after all those years and shoot the shit. I could hear the sadness and loss in his voice after finding out dad had passed away only a few days before his call.

It was jarring that he would suddenly call after so much time had passed and dad had just died.  When I looked back at calendar dates though, it was a only a couple of weeks past the 40th anniversary of when they would have last seen each other in Vietnam.

So he may have just been reminiscing on the 40 year milestone or there may have been some unexplainable cosmic energy at work, or a TV show may have just tickled his memory, as it has mine. It certainly brought tears to my eyes to hear a total stranger speak of my father in such reverent terms.

Similar to the guy in the TV show, after his service he had just gone on living his life for decades, dealing with all the immediate needs that come up with work and family, as we all do.  But over time, and with age and experience, it became more important to reconnect with one of the more meaningful people in his life.

He reminisced how the tough old Airborne Ranger and veteran of multiple wars had taken a young kid (he was probably only 21-22, dad was 40) under his wing and showed him how the real Army worked and how to keep his men alive in combat.

He said it was frightening for him when dad’s 40 year old warrior knees finally got too torn up for him to go on field operations into the jungle and he had to get a less experienced Platoon Sgt. to take over.

But he said dad had trained him well, and he made it through OK.  I can’t remember all the details of the conversation as this was over 12 years ago. At the time I thought I could never forget, but I do remember hearing true respect and sadness in his voice.

A few months previously, after showing dad the videos I made of some of his Army service, including Vietnam, on Memorial Day that year, I remember him saying “Hell, you know more about what I did than I do”.  But that was after I had spent months digging through his old orders and records and researching tons of info in books and on the internet.

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Dad and I at the Moraine veteran memorial dedication May of 2006.  He passed away 2 months later.

I loved seeing the pride in his face as he watched the videos and added details he remembered to the stories, trying to put names to his men’s faces on the screen gave me immeasurable joy to be able to honor him that way.

I am at a point in my life where it has now been 40 years since last seeing my own brothers in arms, and can now easily empathize with how time has a way of peeling away layers of memory and leaving only the highlights…the people, places and points in time that get indelibly stamped into your memory.

I continued talking with the old soldier for a while longer and then gave him my contact information as I had a number of dad’s photos I wanted to share with him as well as the video that I had edited together from the photos.  He sounded excited about that and promised that he would dig through the back of his closet to see what pictures he still had.

Time passed, and I suspect with dad gone the urge to reconnect was dampened as the demands of life caught back up.  I have never heard from him again and, over time, I have lost, misplaced or simply can’t remember where I stashed his contact info, but the memory of that call is one of those memories stamped in my brain that I hope I never forget.