It’s Not Just Stuff

The image above is from one of dad’s personal notebooks.  It was what he expected of his men, and at least for a few years, his children.  Growing up in my parent’s house in the 60’s and 70’s meant you were always surrounded by various artifacts and memories of their military service. My mother served as a Women’s Army Corp (WAC) nurse from 1954-1956.  My father served for over twenty years and three wars, from 1943 WWII to the beginning of the build-up of the Vietnam War in 1966. This circumstance was pretty much taken for granted by us kids…didn’t everyone’s parents serve in the military?  It had simply been the way things were since the day I was born.

WWII style footlocker. Dad had 2 of these stuffed with old Army stuff.

For the older kids at least, it was part of our very being…watching dad go off to work every morning in uniform, constantly moving to a new place to live, in different states, even different countries, seemed normal.  It did not feel unusual to follow dad around when he was training his troops, attend various military events, and finally to watch Walter Cronkite at dinner every single night to see if you might catch a glimpse of your father on the TV, even if it was just to look for his name on the list of casualties that scrolled by at the end of the newscast.

Walter Cronkite telling a story in Vietnam

Mom would let us pull the TV cart over to the dinner table so we could eat while watching…a distinct change from when dad came home for dinner most of the time and the TV was turned off.  We wanted to see him so bad, some kind of proof that he was OK, that we were positive we saw him a time or two in the news footage, especially if there were helicopters.

News team in Vietnam

We had seen them flying over our house every day when we lived at Fort Benning and connected them directly to dad as that is where we last saw him before he went to Vietnam with the 1st Air Cav Division.

1st Cav news photo, 1965 when dad was training his men at Ft Benning. Doing this was scarier to me than rappelling out. Note the photo credit, Joe Galloway, the guy that wrote “We were Soldiers Once” that became the Mel Gibson movie.

Connecting the dots to my mother being a soldier took a bit more imagination.  Her service was over several years before I was even born.  Serving three years, there were far fewer bits and bobs for her, and more hidden away. While dad was a world champion packrat of, well, everything, she was not a fan of anything “old”. She used to explain that having lived a good deal of the time with her grandmother, everything around her when she was growing up all was old.

She liked “new” and was determined to purge, or at least hide, the “old” stuff. This trait must skip back and forth every other generation, as I dearly love almost anything “old” with the implicit stories and history attached to any old items.  The irony is that many of her then “new” belongings have now become old, cherished things.  But hide it away she did, in old boxes, trunks and closets.

“Curiosity killed the cat” has been uttered by poets, playwrights and prognosticators through the generations…but cats have nothing on a Profitt child.  Like a cat, the more trouble taken to hide something, the more effort we expended trying to get into it, and also like a cat, we may have lost a few lives, or at least a few layers of skin off our behinds, when we were discovered having found and messed around with them.

In the 60’s I remember jimmying the locks on an old green suitcase with stickers pasted on it from all over the place. This suitcase cost more today on Etsy as a “Vintage Samsonite” than a full set cost brand new in the 50’s.

This is the same color and style of Samsonite mom had her stuff in. Her stickers were different of course.

Overpowered by the smell of mothballs, digging inside I found some knick-knacks and personal effects along with some olive drab woolen clothing…skirt, jacket, blouse, light-brown stockings, a cap and some shoes and a pair of old brown, over the ankle boots tied together. Well now. My mother wore combat boots.

WAC service boots

The classic curse “Ah, your mama wears combat boots” from Bugs Bunny and the Little Rascal’s was no longer as funny as it used to be.  Now it had a whole new meaning, and rather than used for belittling, it became something to be proud of.  From then on if someone tossed that phrase at me on the playground, the retort would become, “that’s right, she did wear combat boots, what did your mom do”?

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Now, I knew my mother had been a WAC nurse, there were several photos around the house and I had been patched-up with untold butterfly bandages, but holding the physical proof of her service in my hands was somehow more real.

Mom WAC Portrait
Basic Training photo to her father Carl.

Looking at the patches on the sleeve, I quickly identified the uniform to be the one in the classic set of photographs of her and dad from when they met at the Presidio of San Francisco. That feeling of confirmation and validation of knowledge that she “wasn’t always just a mom” was worth every layer of skin I lost on that venture.  The stories were true!

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Of course, dad had trunks and footlockers with decades of stuff everywhere. He didn’t have just one uniform, he had dozens of them.  Fatigues, Class B khakis, Class A dress uniforms, cold weather gear, jungle gear, he had it all… field jackets, field caps, dress caps, garrison caps, belts, socks, skivvies, field pants, wool pants and shirts. I wore it for Halloween for years and it never got old. I wore it to school and camping and playing Army around the neighborhood.

It didn’t stop with clothing items everyone gets to keep, he had stuff you typically had to turn in (SFC Packrat at your service). There were steel helmets, helmet liners, web gear with ammo pouches and canteens, compasses, entrenching tools, ponchos, snap links and climbing rope, wet weather gear, camouflage stick, shelter halves, pole and pegs for a tent, cots, Mickey Mouse Boots for extreme cold, ammo cans, dud rockets and rifle training grenades, brass from cannons.

When we deep cleaned the house after he passed away we found a live, 40 year old CS grenade (extra strong tear gas). If that thing had rusted out or gone off it would have cleared the entire neighborhood.

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Tear Gas type Grenade

He had bookshelves of Army training manuals for everything from building a field expedient latrine to Ranger training, mountain training and setting field expedient booby-traps.   I had used the gear and read all the books many times before I joined the Army so I had a pretty good leg up on the other guys. Hell, I could have showed some of the instructors how to use the stuff.

One of the more unique items was a full crate of expended LAW rockets (Light Antitank Weapon)…they can only be fired once and then disposed of.  I knew how to deploy and target an enemy vehicle by the time I was seven.  We would take these very real rocket launchers out into the neighborhood and play army with them, fully outfitted in actual combat gear.

M72 LAW Rocket, closed for carrying and open for firing.

My brothers and I would be fully outfitted with real gear, camo’d faces, complete with antitank weapons…matched up against the neighborhood kids with a stick for a weapon. Can you imagine if someone’s kids were found running around like this today? SWAT would probably take out the squad of enemy midgets and ask questions later.

Along with all the militaria (an eBay word), much of which I still have, there were also dad’s war souvenirs. They held a special reverence as they had been brought back from the battlefield. Having been a GI myself, I now know these items could have been bought or traded from other GI’s, won in a card game or peddled by ambitious locals just as likely as dad gathering them off a fallen enemy soldier.

But as a kid, I was convinced they were pulled from the hands of a less able warrior than my father after honorable, heroic, hand to hand combat and taken as a trophy of war.

One of these items was a Japanese drafting set. It was cool because just to open it you had to find the secret button hidden on the side of the case.  The case was covered with thin, black leather, with gold Japanese characters.

Drafting Set Case

Opening the fitted case, you glanced over the mysterious contents…many bits and pieces that somehow fit together to make all kinds of odd devices.  Silver plated, some had ivory handles and all had their special cutout place in the deep blue velvet lining. It just looked impressive even if you had no clue what they did.

Look at all that stuff!

Having watched every war movie I could find, I imagined a map maker or artilleryman hiding away in a cave HQ, plotting out American targets to be shelled that night as my dad heroically charged in single-handedly with his big Browning Automatic Rifle and wiped out the HQ, saving dozens of lives.

What the heck are they for?

We were expressly forbidden to touch it for fear of losing parts, which of course made it that much more desirable.  Over the years, pieces were lost, the case was broken and it was ultimately tossed. Kids can be such assholes.

Another favorite is a Japanese Naval Officer’s Sword.  While not the more desired Samurai sword every GI wanted, it is impressive none the less.

IMG_1466.jpgThe pommel, back strap, guard, and scabbard fittings are all brass with the traditional chrysanthemum flower decoration.

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The handle is made of very rough ray skin for a good grip. The gray, shark skin scabbard is heavily lacquered so it is shiny.

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The blade itself is extremely sharp, with what used to be called the “blood groove”, ostensibly there to allow blood to flow easier so the blade goes in and out easier.

IMG_1468.jpgAgain, expressly off-limits to us kids, when mom and dad were gone we would get it out and marvel over the steel blood, imagining marks and tarnished spots to be where the sword had been used to kill or maim someone, leaving marks from the bone and blood.

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Still in remarkably good condition for 75 years of abuse, it is only missing the tassel that used to hang from the handle.  Mom or someone added an old tassel from a hamper we used to have to replace it, but I removed it as it felt like it somehow discredited the history of the sword. I never heard the story from dad how he came to acquire it.

There is also a silk Japanese flag…as a kid I again imagined the flag flying over a strategic enemy position, with dad and his squad as conquering heroes pulling the flag down and raising the stars and stripes in victory.

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It is signed by all of the men that were in his unit back then, the C Company, 184th Regimental Combat Team, 7th Infantry Division.

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A number of years ago when dad was still with us, I transcribed all of the names and tried to find each of them on-line, trying to connect dad with some old buddies. I spent a great deal of time looking, but this turned up no results, as most of them have probably passed on or simply have no internet footprint.

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This style WWII flag is commonly known in collector circles as a “meatball” flag, as it only depicts the sun, rather than the rising sun flag, with its 16 rays surrounding the sun. The rising sun flag was the war flag of the Imperial Japanese Army, if the sun is centered, and the war ensign of the Imperial Japanese Navy if it was off center.

Ensign of the Imperial Japanese Navy

The Japanese call their country’s flag hinomaru, which translates literally to “sun’s circle”, referencing the red circle on a white field. When the hinomaru was signed, the Japanese characters were usually written vertically, and radiated outward from the edge of the red circle. This practice is referenced in the second term, yosegaki, meaning “collection of writing”. The phrase hinomaru-yosegaki can be interpreted as “Collection of writing around the red sun”, describing the appearance of the signed flag.

Another example with far more Japanese writing than dad’s

Dads’ flag also has some Japanese characters written on it.  I have since discovered these flags are known as a Good Luck Flag, known as yosegaki hinomaru in the Japanese language.

Japanese writing on the flag

It was a traditional gift for Japanese soldiers when they deployed during a Japanese military campaign of the Empire of Japan, but most notably during WWII. This national flag was given to a soldier and signed by friends and family, often with short messages wishing the soldier victory, safety, and good luck.

As children, we again added our own story to the flag.  Every brown spot was a dried blood stain or mud from the battle field.  Dad did say that he pulled the flag off a dead soldier, and had all his buddies sign it as they passed around their own flags to be signed.  While this sounds rather morbid today, the war in the Pacific was horrific, fought against an enemy that seldom gave quarter or expected it in return. I am just glad my father survived to give me a place in this world.

There is also a camera, a German Zeiss Icon Iconta 520 camera made in the mid to late 30’s.  The unique part about it is that it had a bullet shot completely through it.

Zeiss Icon Iconta 520

Of all the items, this one created some of the more fanciful imagined stories. I’m sure you can think of a few of your own. “The guy was taking a picture at the time and the bullet went through the camera into his eye”, or “the photographer stuck the camera above his fox hole to take a picture and a sniper shot it out of his hand” and so on.

Bullet hole

I would have loved to see the roll of film that was in the camera at the time, but I’m sure it was spoiled by the light of the bullet entry or turned over to the intel boys to try and get some information on the enemy.

Metal pounded back into hole. I think dad was trying to “fix” it.

Dad or someone tried to pound the aluminum from the bullet hole back in place…I can imagine the great scrounger trying to fix it so he could use it again.  Zeiss did make the sharpest lenses for many years.

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Finally, there is the Nambu Type 94 pistol.  It was chambered in 8mm Nambu, which is an extinct and obsolete cartridge.

Nambu Type 94 8mm. The sear bar is is the narrow bar running along the barrel.

While the Nambu Type 14 was a sexy looking weapon that looked like a Japanese Luger, and every GI wanted to score, the Type 94 has been called the worst service pistol ever made.

Machine marks make it rough as a cob

It was a very crudely made pistol produced by Japan towards the end of the war, when they were pumping out the “last ditch weapons” as the US was closing in on the homeland.

Those thumb grooves on the back can rip your skin off. Can I get this in chrome please?

It is extremely poor quality, as most late war Japanese weapons were, this one having very rough machine marks and poor tolerances. It was just as dangerous to the owner as the person it was pointed at.  The reason for this is that it has an exposed sear bar on the side.  If this sear gets touched, it fires the gun. Yup, if you touch the side of the gun, not the trigger, it will fire.

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So, it could go off when holstered, handling it, dropping it, handing it to someone, etc. There are stories of Japanese officers handing the pistol over when “surrendering” and then pressing the sear bar to get off one last suicide shot.  It is still known as a desirable collectible…as the worst service pistol ever made.

Nambu Type 14 8mm Luger look alike that everyone wanted.

Moving to the Vietnam era, dad brought back a Montagnard spear tip.  The Montagnards are the indigenous peoples of the Central Highlands of Vietnam, where dad was stationed in the 1st Cav Division.

Montagnard weapons.

The term Montagnard means “people of the mountain” in French, and is a carryover from the French colonial period in Vietnam. Dad took a number of pictures of the Montagnards.

Dad’s photo of a nearby Montagnard  village along the Main Supply Route (MSR)

 

Montagnard kids begging dad for goodies along the road

Originally inhabitants of the coastal areas of the region, they were driven to the uninhabited mountainous areas by invading Vietnamese and Cambodians beginning prior to the 9th century.

Montagnard with spear and cross bow.

Having no love for the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese regulars, they were allies and trained by US Special Forces as guerilla fighters.  They used spears, crossbows and other primitive weapons as well as move conventional firearms.

He also brought back a Viet Cong flag.

Viet Cong flag dad brought back

Here is a VC belt buckle.  It used to have a black leather belt, but it long ago rotted away under the care of the Profitt children.

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Viet Cong belt buckle

When we used it to play Army, the enemy forces got to wear it and as everyone knows, the VC popped up out of rice paddies and rivers so it was often wet and dried and left out in the yard to the point where the leather rotted.  I don’t know how we all lived to adulthood other than they would have to kill us all and someone would notice 6 kids missing.

Here is a photo of dad with a photo captioned as “captured VC souvenirs”.  I’m sure he thought about how he could get that bicycle back to the states somehow.

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Dad with some of his buddies with a captured VC bike and rice wine.

From the local shops around the An Khê, dad also sent back jackets for the boys and Vietnamese dresses for mom and Laurie.

An Khe street vendors

I’m not sure if any of the dresses still exist, but here is dad wearing my mother’s dress in Vietnam.

Dad in Vietnamese Dress

As far as I know there is only one remaining jacket left.  I outgrew it by about the 4th grade.  He was actually there 65-66, but bought them in ’66 just before he left.

Size to fit a 7 year old

My favorites though, are the photographs he took in many of the places he went.  They are rare in number compared to today with the endless selfies and photos of what we had for lunch enabled by cell phone cameras, so I cherish each one and take care to restore as many as I can to share with the family.

From WWII there are very few photos. Maybe a couple from Korean occupation after WWII along with a couple from R&R in Japan, quite a few from when he served in the Free Territory of Trieste for three years, a few more from the Korean War, and a number from Vietnam.

It amazes me that there are only these few remnants of their military careers, a good part of dad’s life really, but I am grateful for what remains. To me they are memories I have been surrounded with for 60 years and key aspects of who my parents were.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

Paul Dad Les_2.jpg
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.