The Right Man for the Job
Ron Karpinski ©1995
Fifty pairs of eyes stared out the window in silence, as the bus roared north on Highway 101. In the early morning darkness, rolling hills and grassland swept past. Somewhere between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, the sun broke above the horizon.
Local Draft Board No. 135 had ordered our induction into the army. That week, three hundred young Orange County men had left home to serve their country. The date: April 29, 1968 - little more than a month shy of my twenty first birthday.
Rumor spread that we were headed to Fort Ord, near Monterey where eight weeks of basic training awaited. Most of the young men on board the bus were scared, not knowing what to expect. Each kept to himself, more or less, lost in his own thoughts.
Older men who had served their time all had good things to say about the army. "In the army," they said, "the boy becomes a man. There, you will find your niche in life. The army has a way of putting the right man in the right job."
* * * * *
The process of becoming men began as soon as we got off the bus. Angry sergeants shoved us and called us names. Then a mad barber shaved all the hair off our heads.
Each man received two large green canvas duffle bags. One held wool and cotton clothing. The other carried heavy, bulky items of field gear. All reeked of moth balls.
For the remainder of that first day, wherever we went, those two duffle bags also went; and, no matter how heavy they got, we were not allowed to let them touch the ground. Forty men, in a column of two's, marched from building to building, stuffing ever more items into the bags, a wide trail of camphor following in our wake.
At the barracks, we dumped the contents of the bags onto the floor and set about marking. Shirts, pants, shorts, belts, boots, hats, and even towels all bore stencil marks with their owner's last name and serial number in black ink. My personal identity had been reduced to: US 56 725 812. You never forget your army service number.
Marking a man's belongings seemed a prudent thing to do. With thousands of men all using the same laundry, one pair of pants looked much like another; but the real reason for the stencil marks came to light a few weeks later.
Drill sergeants delighted in ransacking the barracks while the troops were out training. At first work call, the platoon bay had been spotless, prepared for inspection; but, by the end of the day, bunks and wall lockers lay scattered about, and forty pairs of boots had been thrown into one jumbled heap at the center of the room.
"Men," the head drill sergeant announced, "you have ten minutes to make this place shine. We will be back to inspect." When the head drill sergeant allows ten minutes to accomplish something, eleven minutes is unacceptable.
Five men dove headlong into the pile, frantically shouting out names and flinging boots to the four corners of the room. The rest of us raced about matching owners with bunks, foot lockers, and wall lockers. Stencil marks on things came in handy.
* * * * *
With a few semesters of college under my belt, I scored well on the standard entrance tests. That made me a target for Officer Candidate School (OCS). A friendly captain called me into his office three or four times to discuss Engineer OCS.
When the captain called, it released me from normal training. The drill sergeants didn't like that one bit. A special pass allowed me to wander, on my own, down to main post. You can be sure, I took my sweet time at it.
The sessions lasted an hour each. They were like therapy, calm civil discourse, far from the screaming sergeants. It felt good to talk with someone nice for a change.
Each visit ended in the same way. I asked for more time to think it over. That meant the captain would have to call me back again.
One thing didn't seem right. It made no sense to me that the army would trust a man to build roads and bridges, when, as a social sciences major, he had yet to take his first college math course.
Did these people really expect me to become an engineer officer? Maybe they were trying to trick me. Yes, that was it, they wanted me to flunk out of OCS, so they could send me to the infantry!
Young, naοve, and scared, I lacked confidence. The captain, an infantry officer, said he would have given anything for a chance to be in the Corps of Engineers. He urged me to go for it; but OCS would have lengthened my commitment to the army from two years to three, so I turned it down. The captain threw his arms in the air.So, instead of OCS, they sent me to the very place I had tried so hard to avoid - the infantry. Maybe that had been my fate all along. In those days, most draftees went straight into the infantry anyway . . . and on to Vietnam.
* * * * *
Following basic training, most of the men in our unit remained at Fort Ord for advanced infantry training. Then they shipped out for Vietnam; but, for some strange reason, Dwight Kenny and I got orders for Fort Dix, New Jersey.
On the journey east, our flight from Monterey to Los Angeles arrived late. As a result, we missed the connecting flight to Philadelphia. The next flight wouldn't leave until late the following day.
The airport lobby closed at midnight, so we couldn't stay there. On the street out front, we made a decision. We pooled our change and took a cab thirty miles to Dwight's home in Cypress. From there, Dwight drove me home to Garden Grove.
After a good night's sleep, we met again the next day. For six hours, we wandered about Disneyland, showing off in our uniforms. At sunset, Dwight's sister drove us back to the airport.
That night, two surly sergeants met us at the front gate of Fort Dix. Why, they demanded to know, were we so late getting there? When we told them what had happened, they hit the roof.
We should have, at the least, called, they said. One of us had been a bad influence on the other. They just didn't know which one. So, they split us up, shipping Dwight off to one training company and me to another. I never saw Dwight again.
* * * * *
Advanced infantry training lasted eight weeks. I finished in the top ten percent and got promoted to Private First Class. The commander liked me. When the rest of the unit shipped out to Germany, he kept me behind to join the cadre as a "drill corporal."
Three months later, in December 1968, infantry training ceased abruptly at Fort Dix. Five hundred members of the cadre were shipped off to Fort Hood, Texas.
Processing at Fort Hood took all day. New arrivals snaked along an endless line, weaving in and out of old wooden barracks buildings, dragging their green duffle bags behind. Clerks sat at desks or stood behind counters, reviewing records.
Each clerk rattled off a new set of questions. You answered, not knowing where it led, and he wrote it all down on a sheet of paper. Then he signed the paper and slapped a rubber stamp on it for good measure. A sergeant reviewed the paper, signed it, and added it to your records. Then you moved on to the next station.
All those efforts seemed to focus on where to put each new arrival on that vast flat dusty garrison of 65,000 soldiers. At the end of the line, a baby-faced clerk handed me a piece of paper reading "1st Battalion, 13th Cavalry." Wait, that's a tank outfit.
"Excuse me," I said to the clerk, "there must be some mistake here. I'm an infantryman - Eleven Bravo Ten. I'm no tanker."
The guy didn't even look up. "You are now," he snapped. "Next!"
* * * * *
For the next month, I learned how to be a tank crewman. The new unit had an odd mixture of sergeants. Half were career soldiers, and the other half were draftees who had earned their rank in `Nam.
The draftees were mostly young "buck" sergeants, biding time until their two year terms ran out. Most were just as young as the new replacements. On the other hand, they had all survived combat. In that regard, they had a wealth of wisdom to pass on.
Older career sergeants and younger combat vets joined to train the new greenhorns on the M60A1 main battle tank - the army's finest. A series of shortcuts condensed a normal sixteen-week training course down to four weeks. They saved twelve weeks by telling us, "Forget that, you won't need it in `Nam. In `Nam, we do it this way."
We learned a lot of colorful language and hand gestures in those four weeks at Fort Hood; and we came to know each part of a tank in the most practical way -- by painting it olive drab. Officially a "tank driver," I had yet to actually drive one.
* * * * *
One morning, a jeep rolled up to the weapons qualification range. The first sergeant's driver hollered out three names. "Top wants to see you guys in his office right now," he said.
My chin dropped. When the first sergeant sent for you, it usually meant you were in some kind of trouble; but not on this day.
"All right," said First Sergeant Matthews, "I got good news, and I got bad news. The good news is, you three men are the first in over a year and a half to leave this company for anyplace other than Vietnam. You're going to Korea. The bad news is, you have to leave by tomorrow morning."
Five hours left in the work day gave us more than ample time to clear Fort Hood. We crisscrossed the post in a frenzy, turning in field gear, paying bills, and drawing advanced travel pay. Then came the personnel office.
A clerk there declared that four weeks of "in 'Nam we do it this way" made a bona fide tank driver out of me. Lining through the word "Infantryman" in my records, he typed below it "Tank Crewman."
* * * * *
Eighth Army in Korea had its own unique way of saying hello to new arrivals -- the infamous gamma globulin shot. Supposedly, it helped ward off infection during the first few months in an alien climate; but the old nurse who gave the shots laughed too much for me to believe the whole thing was on the level.
Right off the airplane, they marched us, officers and draftees alike, into an empty hanger. One by one, each new arrival was ushered behind an old army blanket that served as a curtain. From the other side, a voice said, "Drop your drawers, bend over, and smile." A slight pause ensued, followed by a bloodcurdling scream.
When my turn came, I took a long hard look at the nurse. She had a strong resemblance to Marjorie Main, the stout and tough old actress who played opposite Wallace Berry in so many films of the 1930's. In her hand, she held what looked to be a large horse syringe, grinning at my bare pink tush.
Left and right, MP's blocked the exits. Quick, how much money did I have in my wallet? What would it cost to buy her off, to "pencil" this one into my records? Before I could speak, she plunged the needle deep into my lean buttocks - and struck bone.
A bloodcurdling scream exploded from my lungs and echoed off the ceiling. I grabbed my bottom with both hands, bowled over an MP, and ran out of the hanger. Fighting back the tears, I hobbled across the tarmac toward a waiting bus.
* * * * *
With all traces of infantry stricken from my records, it came as no surprise when they assigned me to the 1st Battalion, 72d Armor. The new unit had a base camp up near the border between North and South Korea. There, the curve of the Im Jin river formed a narrow spit of land called the "Dragon's Head." Tiny Camp Rose sat in the middle of the Dragon's Head.
Roads were unpaved, dry and dusty. The tried and true two-and-a-half ton truck was the best means of transport; but three bumpy hours in the back of a "deuce-and-a-half" will give any man kidney problems.
A phantom driver carried me halfway across Korea in a deuce-and-a-half. For all I know, the man had no face. From the cargo bed, a small square opening in the tarpaulin offered a view into the cab; the back of a head showed but no more.
From one outpost to the next, the truck hurtled down the dirt road. Huge tires pounded the hard earth, raising columns of dust that choked those in the rear. Steep hillsides and broad open plains rolled by, filled with endless rice paddies.
At each stop, the driver barked out the name of the place, and one or two men hopped off. Then the engine revved up, and the truck lurched off again. After all the others had jumped out, half an hour passed, and then my stop came.
"Camp Rose," hollered a gruff voice up front. I tossed my duffle bag on the ground and jumped out. Standing in the road, the bright sun blinded my eyes, and the chill spring air stung my bare arms. Then the truck took off and kicked dust in my face.
The barracks lay deserted. Only the supply sergeant remained in the rear. Most of the others had deployed on border duty. On border duty, the sergeant told me, they sat in fox holes and guarded against an invasion from the north. Tanks, fitted with powerful Zeon search lights, guarded the south entrance to Liberty Bridge.
The sergeant issued me a "mummy" sleeping-bag from the supply room and showed me to a nearby "Quonset hut." A few other stragglers were bunking in there as well, but they had been given passes to go downtown and wouldn't be back until late that night. The first sergeant could figure out what to do with me in the morning.
Quonset huts had been around since World War II. They got their name from the city of Quonset, Rhode Island, where they were built. Made of corrugated metal, they looked like huge round oil storage tanks that had been cut in half down the middle and laid flat on the ground.
Set atop crude concrete slabs, Quonset huts weren't fancy, but they beat sleeping in a tent. After having lived out of a duffle bag for two weeks, the place looked just fine to me. I took a top bunk, the number one choice of GI's around the world.
Four metal bunk beds with thin cotton mattresses lined each side of the open room. Between the beds stood tall, narrow metal wall lockers for hanging uniforms. Wooden foot lockers, for socks, underwear, and such, sat on the floor at the end of each bunk.
The empty barracks felt eerie, as I flipped off the lights and crawled into bed. Snug and warm, zipped up in my mummy bag, I surveyed the room my new home.
My new roommates arrived around midnight. Five or six of them broke the door down as they spilled into the room, blind staggering drunk. One of them took a swing in the dark, and chaos commenced.
Bunks and lockers spilled onto their sides, and a new hole, the size of a human head, appeared in the plasterboard wall. The brawl lasted ten minutes or so.
Then it got quiet again. Heavy breathing rose from the floor, as a tangled pile of bodies lay panting in the night. A voice in the dark asked where the zipped-up mummy bag had come from.
* * * * *
The next day, I met the M48A2C main battle tank, circa 1959, for the first time. "What's this?" I asked the sergeant.
"It's a tank," replied the old man, unamused.
"It doesn't look like the tank they trained me on at Fort Hood," I persisted.
"A tank is a tank," the sergeant drawled. "It says here in your records that you learned how to drive a tank. Now, get in there and drive it."
"Well, yes," I began, "but . . ." I didn't know how to tell him that I had yet to log my first mile in a tank.
"Git!" hollered the sergeant.
* * * * *
Soon, the unit moved north to play war games. "War games" is a euphemism for training in the deadly art of combat. Tanks, trucks and soldiers split into two armies - the BLUE Force and the ORANGE Force. I was assigned to the BLUE Force.
Senior officers and sergeants from division headquarters served as umpires and observed every move. Writing in small notebooks, they sometimes stopped the action for on-the-spot critiques. Otherwise, they let us "duke" it out.
A vast network of rice paddies made up the "battlefield." Raised earthen dikes ran between the fields. Atop the dikes, ancient rutted roads, built for ox carts, led from one end to the other. Our tanks hung over the roads six inches on both sides.
Each tank had a large search light atop the 90-mm main gun barrel. When an enemy tank approached, we aimed our search light at it and blinked. If they saw us, they blinked back. The umpires had to figure out who shot whom first.
* * * * *
The tanks in our unit were old and decrepit. Over the years, many parts had broken, fallen off, or no longer worked as originally designed.
Most driver escape hatches were missing. Escape hatches looked like man hole covers; they fitted into the bottom of the hull, up front where the driver sat. When the driver turned a lever, the hatch fell to the ground, and he could crawl out the hole.
The other crew members sat inside the turret, behind the driver. With the gun tube pointed to the rear, two large openings lined up between the turret and the driver compartment. The resulting gap allowed the driver to pass in and out of the turret.
When the sergeant moved the gun to the front, however, the alignment changed. The passageway disappeared, and the driver became cut off from his crew mates. That's why he needed a private escape route.
Most radios were broken as well; hence, built-in microphones and receivers in helmets didn't work. So, our crew devised a backup method of communicating.
The sergeant sat up in the cupola, a little to the right and about three feet above and behind the driver. Our sergeant had very long legs and size twelve feet.
Driving with the gun tube pointed to the rear, Sarge could stretch his left leg down through the opening in the turret and tap on my helmet with his boot. When he wanted to emphasize a point, he tapped a little harder.
* * * * *
Gazing down the road, the dike looked narrow, indeed. A hundred yards away, the road ended at a T-shaped crossing. Only one tank at a time could pass through.
From the edge of the roadway, in all directions, a sharp drop fell five feet down to the rice paddies below. The fields had been drained of water and were now soggy beds of mud several inches deep, with thick green rice stalks shooting two feet into the air.
The solid slap of a size twelve boot broke my reverie, Sarge's idea of a wake up call. Two more quick slaps followed. In sergeant talk, that meant "Git, full speed ahead!"
Then I saw it. Another tank - with Orange Force markings - approached from the left. It also sped toward the crossing. Even I, a lowly draftee, could see that heads would roll and careers would end, if we did not get to that crossing first and save the day for the BLUE Force.
Back in Texas, the M60 tank had a T-bar for steering, like those on Red Flyer coaster wagons. It also had a three speed automatic transmission. To drive an M60, you merely pointed with the T-bar and pressed on the gas.
The M48, on the other hand, had a small airplane-type steering wheel, and it had only two gears. With the M48, if you wanted to make a sharp turn, you had to place it in low gear. Otherwise, the tank turned in a slow, wide arc.
In 'Nam, they didn't do it that way, so the sergeants at Fort Hood had omitted that minor detail. As a result, I didn't know about the low gear trick; and my sergeant of the moment didn't know that I didn't know it.
A main battle tank weighs 52 tons and has a top speed of precisely 32 miles per hour. We had just reached that lofty speed when I chanced a quick glance at that other tank bearing down on us from the left.
The other driver must have been a seasoned tanker, an expert on the M48. He seemed in awe that we were roaring full speed toward the crossing. From his vantage point, he could see that we were nearing the end of the road, with no room to stop.
From my vantage point, I knew better. We would reach the crossing first, secure it for the BLUE Force, and then turn sharply to the right, AWAY from the other tank. Sarge would signal when the time came to turn.
Both screaming tanks bore down on the intersection. The other driver looked over at us again, and his eyes grew as big as saucers. That's when I knew we had him.
He hit the brakes. His tracks locked, and the tank slid in the mud. Smoke poured from the road wheels, and small chunks of rubber tank treads flew off to the sides.
The other tank came to rest twenty yards short of the crossing. It rocked back and forth, as its great weight settled to earth. Once again, nerves of steel had won the day.
A loud squelch came over the ear phones in my helmet. It was Sarge, mad as a hornet. He had swung the turret around to blink at the other tank and could no longer reach me with his foot.
What do you know, the radio works. Or, had Sarge's livid screams pierced the solid steel tank hull? Wait, the old boy wants to tell me something.
Broken words filtered through. "Turn the (BLEEP) tank to the (BLEEP) right . . . NOW . . . you (BLEEP) worthless, no good (BLEEP) . . . screech, squawk." In sergeant talk, that meant "please turn the tank to the right, as soon as possible."
I turned the wheel to the right, but nothing happened. I jerked it a second time and a third, and still the tank only leaned slightly to the right. This was not the stand-on-a-dime ninety-degree right turn I had expected.
Planting both feet on the instrument panel, I grunted and put all my body weight into it; but all the force in the world could not convince that pig-iron monster to turn. Meanwhile, Sarge's frenzied bellows echoed in my helmet and pounded my ear drums.
That is when we went airborne . . . and turning right became a moot point. Leaving mother earth behind, 52 tons of main battle tank left the dike at precisely 32 miles per hour in a lazy arc toward the mushy rice paddy below.
* * * * *
After a short flight of ten yards or so, Mr. Tank slammed to earth, nose first, then bounded sharply and went airborne again. The impact tossed the crew like rag dolls inside the turret. Surely, we would bog down in that mire, if someone close to the controls did not act quickly.
A tank has only one driver and one set of controls. Quick, man, think, what would you do, if you were back home in your 1959 Corvette roadster? Why, easy, just downshift, put her in low gear.
Reaching out, I slapped at the gear lever, and it popped back into the "L" slot. If a 52-ton tank can hang in midair while it ponders its next move, that is what this one did. We all waited for the tank to land again.
It's funny how much can go through your mind in just a fraction of a second. It had taken a weathered old man weeks to plant and grow all that rice. How mad will he be at us for tearing up his crop like this?
Splashing heavily, the tank plowed into the wet earth; then the front end reared up out of the sludge, the force throwing me back against the driver seat. The beast veered sharply to the left, out of control. Gnashing road wheels spun wildly, chewing up rice stalks and spitting them out the sides.
The rear mounted sixteen-cylinder engine came to life with a wondrous, deafening roar. Grabbing the steering wheel, I turned it to the right; and, behold, the tank turned to the right! Man, once more, reigned over machine.
The tank gnawed through the rice paddy and up the nearest bank. Cresting the narrow dike road, I aimed for a flat, level assembly area sixty yards away. There, three umpires, my company commander, and a buzzing crowd of onlookers had gathered.
* * * * *
From the back of the tank, Sarge, the loader, and the gunner all screamed at the top of their lungs. No doubt, they thought it had been a great tank ride and were arguing over who would have the honor of buying me a beer at the canteen that night.
Switching off the engine, I looked for a way out. The gun tube still pointed forward, so the passage back to my comrades in the turret had been cut off. That left the driver's upper hatch as the best choice.
The bustle rack hung over the hatch, and I hit my head. Then my arm got tangled in the camouflage netting. Other than that, it was a graceful exit.
From a few feet away, the tank showed its age. Faded and splattered with mud, it squeaked, wheezed, and rattled, as the engine refused to quit. Then it hissed and sputtered one last time - and died.
A jagged set of track marks meandered off for a hundred yards or more. They led across the road and down through the middle of a nearby rice paddy, marking a wide swath of destruction. I felt a bond with that old tank.
Our company commander, Captain Richard M. Love, had been in the army for thirteen years - a skilled leader and a good judge of talent. He put his arm around my shoulder, and we walked a short distance away from the others.
Clearing his throat, the captain spoke to me for the first time. "Son," he said, "that was a mighty fine bit of driving; but, I think we have to find something else for you to do around here."
* * * * *
The next morning, I reported to the orderly room to begin my new job as the Assistant Company Clerk. Seems they were having some trouble in that area and needed help. No problem, they had the right man for the job.