The Detail

Craig Thompson

A squad leader has to take care of his men and accomplish the mission. Sometimes what that mission is seems a bit cloudy. In this narrative I was asked to do something that in my opinion laid outside the boundaries of my squad's mission and I chose to take care of my men instead. I probably should have been busted over this and sent to Long Binh Jail (LBJ). Still, of all the things I did in Vietnam, this story is the one that I take most pride (I never would have made it as a career soldier [grin]).

This narrative isn't meant to disparage non-combat arms personnel. We all know that any complex organization requires many skills to accomplish its goals. Still there are inequities, life isn't fair, and most of the time you can do little about it. This story is about one of those times something could be done.

In the latter half of 1968, the 2nd Battalion of the 503d Airborne Infantry Regiment of the 173d Airborne Brigade was headquartered at Landing Zone English near Bong Son in Binh Dinh Province.

In the field we pretty much got up at dawn, put on our heavy rucks and spent the day humping the hills, paddies, and jungle looking for the VC and NVA. Fairly often the helicopters would come down and take us to where there was better chance of finding them.

I have never been able to adequately describe the kind of physical and emotional demands "humping" puts on a person and I won't try here. Its not romantic, its not adventurous, its not glorious. If you've never done it, imagine a time when you were really tired from some physical exertion. Now put a hundred pounds on your back, kick the heat up to 100 degrees+, and climb a hill full of thorn bushes and biting insects for the rest of the day and be quiet because someone wants to kill you. And do it for a month, never sleeping more than two or four hours at a crack.

You lived out of your ruck. Weather permitting you were resupplied every third day. If you were lucky, you would get a change of clothes maybe once an operation. You cooked your own C-ration meals over a stove you made out of a C-rat can (if you were lucky enough to be able to cook -- otherwise you ate the stuff cold).

And as far as toilet facilities went, well your squad carried shovels and little packets of toilet paper came with every C-rat meal.

The four rifle companies (A-D) would go out into the field for 30 - 45 days at a time. This was followed by a rotation back to English for 3 to 7 days of stand down and perimeter guard. Now I know that it would seem that it should have been three weeks in the field and one in the rear in a perfect system, but it never seemed to work out that way. More than once a rifle company would be pulled off the berm (night or day) and heliported to some hot spot. At these times I suppose the people who pretty much lived at English would take over perimeter guard.

A rifle company never had enough people to man the entire perimeter at English anyways. Our temporary assignments to such duty were looked upon as a break. And a break they were.

It was September of 1968 and we had been rotated back to English.

There were exceptions but in general there were no latrine facilities (i.e., a small building where waste dropped into 55 gallon drums) near most of the bunkers at English. If you needed to use the latrine, you had to take a couple of hundred meter hike to find one. If you couldn't leave the bunker . . . well you went out front just as if you were in the field.

As near as I recall I had 9 guys in my squad (including me) at the time with 3 bunkers to cover.

Two of these bunkers were next to the airstrip and had to manned around the clock with a minimum of 2 men on them at all times. The third (between the other two) only had to be manned at night.

This meant that in the evening, 3 guys in the squad could catch a movie, eat a hot meal, maybe have a beer at the EM club.

If there was nothing else going on in the daytime, everyone got at least one hot meal -- some going to breakfast, some going to lunch. It also meant that 5 guys in the squad could have passes downtown to Bong Son.

But on this particular morning something else was going on.

Just about breakfast time, our platoon sergeant (SFC Pigue) found me and said he needed three guys and a team leader for a detail that day. Well so much for passes downtown that day. 4 guys on the bunker, 4 guys on detail and I had to be at battalion HQ that day.

Sent the detail guys off to breakfast plus one more. I stayed on the bunker until the fifth man came back with paper plates of food from the mess hall.

After eating my probably dull and cold breakfast, I headed off to battalion.

When I got to the battalion area, I came across my guys. They were burning drums of human waste from the latrines in the battalion HQ area. So I pulled them off detail, sent them back to the bunkers, and went to look for Pigue.

When I found him I explained what I had done and why. He, of course, told me to send them back and I refused.

So I don't have to repeat it over and over again in this narrative, this was my rationale: We didn't get three hot meals a day, we didn't sleep in hootches in relative safety, we didn't get to drink beer every night, we didn't see movies at our leisure, we didn't get clean clothes daily, we didn't get to shower daily -- and I wasn't going to assign my men to burn the shit of those who could do all those things. Varied the phrasing through the day of course depending on who I talked to.

So Pigue took me to see our platoon leader, LT Miles. A good man and a better platoon leader would be hard to find. A wise man -- rather than just ordering me to send my men back, he asked me what I would do if he issued that order. I explained that I would have to refuse.

So the next step was to see Captain Fox, my Company Commander. He explained the difficult position my refusal put him in. He just couldn't have his squad leaders refusing instructions from his senior NCOs. He sent me off under escort to see the Battalion Commander.

At the battalion commander's hootch, I didn't have the opportunity to talk to him. The battalion first sergeant came out, said that the colonel didn't want to talk to me, I was put under arrest, and was escorted by MPs to the stockade.

When we there though, the MPs were instructed to take me to Brigade HQ to see BG Allen instead.

At Brigade HQ, I waited for an uncomfortably long time. I talked to SGM Bittori who gave me the impression that he agreed with me (though he never said so) and was slightly amused at my discomfort.

I was scared. I had a wife and daughter at home that needed the buck sergeant pay I was getting. I just knew that I was going to spend 6 months or more at LBJ and still have to do a full tour but as a private E-1.

But I wasn't going to change my mind and I hoped the folks back home understood.

In awhile the Brigade XO (a Colonel Throckmorton or Thurston I think -- not sure of the name after so many years) came out and I once again explained the circumstances of my refusal.

He went into Allen's office. After what seemed to be hours, General Allen came out. He asked me about where I was from, about my family, etc. And then he said that I should be getting back to my company. I was stunned. We hadn't talked about me pulling my guys off the detail!

The MPs were gone and I have the vague memory of SGM Bittori grinning at me as I left HQ.

I went back to the company area and found out that General Allen had ordered that the rifle companies no longer be assigned to shit-burning detail.

Apparently the senior NCOs had all agreed with me (and I suspect most of the officers agreed as well) and as I was going from place to place, the NCOs were moving just ahead of me and prepping the next step in the chain of command.

For awhile, I was a minor hero in the company. And I think the incident speaks well of the NCOs and officers of the 173d Airborne Brigade. I am proud to have been one of them.

Copyright © 1997 Craig Thompson
Go back to Stories

Added 2/6/97