Tag Archives: Fort McPherson

Wearing Whites: My Time in the Military by Roger

12 Aug

Roger lives in the San Diego area, has two children and seven grandchildren, and frequently travels with his family. He spends his summers at a lake in northwestern Montana.

 

In 1966 when I was a junior at college in Billings, Montana, I was drafted because my grades had dropped below the threshold. I believed anyway that serving my country was my duty and that I would be proud to do it. I feared going off to Vietnam but was willing to do so if needed.

I was inducted at Butte, Montana and did my basic training at Ft. Lewis, Washington, where ours was only the second group to go through basic there since World War II. Coal-fired boilers heated the barracks. We had to keep the windows open as a precaution because of the meningitis outbreak at Fort Ord in San Francisco. Doctors thought that open windows would help prevent an outbreak at Ft. Lewis.

After basic, I was sent to Fort McPherson, 3rd Army Headquarters, in Atlanta. I was assigned to the hospital laboratory school for training as a lab technician. Back at Ft. Lewis I had had the requisite testing in basic training and received an extremely high score on the code translation test. I had been exposed to Morse Code in Boy Scouts but never got my merit badge because I hadn’t proved competent in it. So when I took the requisite battery of tests in basic, I just filled in random answers on the multiple choice test. When they called us in to discuss the tests, I was told I got one of the highest scores they’d ever seen in code translation. They  wanted to send me to the communication school in Ft. Huachuca, but I told them I didn’t want to do communication and would prefer to “wear whites,” meaning to be assigned to a medical unit, hopefully in the U.S.

To get to Atlanta we took a Delta jet through Chicago. It was my first travel on a jet plane. We landed at O’Hare Airport in Chicago and I was overwhelmed at the immensity of it. In Atlanta we waited at the airport for someone to pick us up. Announcements were made over poor loud speakers in a southern drawl; we couldn’t understand any of it.

The Ft. McPherson base (Ft. Mac) itself was luxurious compared to Ft. Lewis. There were 600 acres; more than half of the base consisted of a golf course. It was a place where old soldiers were headquartered shortly before they retired. There was a laboratory school. In retrospect I often wondered if there weren’t connections for most of us to get into this particular school because the really big lab school was in Ft. Sam Houston in Texas with several hundred students. We, on the other hand, had only 21 or so students.

Once two friends, Keith and Bob, and I went to meet Keith’s new girlfriend at a Southern Baptist Church. We were told we would arrive after the service, but it turned out that the service hadn’t yet begun so we reluctantly sat through it. We found ourselves sitting in the front row.

At the end of the service the preacher said, “Those of you who have seen the light of Jesus and accepted him as your savior, please rise.” We three just sat there. The pastor repeated this twice, his voice rising in pitch each time. We were embarrassed but didn’t succumb. On the way out of the church, the minister greeted everyone. As he shook my hand, I said, “I think it’s strange that this is Atlanta, Georgia. Why are there no black people in this church?” Whereupon he pulled on my hand, yanking my arm, and guided me firmly out the door without responding to my question.

There was only one black student at the lab school. Joe was a lifeguard from Los Angeles before being drafted. I’d never had occasion to be friends with a black man before, having grown up in Kalispell, Montana. We’d go out to classy places in Atlanta like the Top of the Mart, where we had no problems being served.

I had married my wife on leave at Christmas time, and we rented an apartment. At a party at my place, Joe was standing by the pool when some of my friends shoved him in, all in fun. The day after the pool incident, I was contacted by my C.O. He was from Lubbock, Texas. “Don’t you know where you are?” he asked me.

“I know very well where I am,” I replied, mimicking his tone.

“Well, obviously you don’t. And you’re going to have to learn!” It turned out that a white sergeant in the same apartment complex had complained about Joe. Later after we were intimidated into moving out, we found out that the pool had been closed for three days to be drained and “cleansed.”

A friend of mine had put a deposit on another unit in the same complex. He was asked if he knew me and my wife. “Yes,” he replied, “and I have a lot more friends [implying black friends] than they do.”

“How do you want your deposit back?” the manager asked him.

Our next apartment was in the middle of a black neighborhood. A twenty-foot barbed wire fence “protected” it. However, the managers did tell me there was no problem if I had black visitors. Six months later a law was passed prohibiting landlords from discriminating against military personnel.

I had a best friend from college in Montana—he’d been best man in absentia at my wedding because he was serving in Vietnam at the time. He wanted to go into politics someday. K.C. [not his real name] felt that serving in the military was important to his political aspirations, (although he would have willingly volunteered anyway). In order to be accepted he had to go through Montana Senator Mike Mansfield, then Senate Majority Leader and a former marine, who pulled strings for him because he didn’t meet the height requirement. He went from Camp Pendleton in California to Vietnam, where he was serving his tour.

It was the end of my lab training and we were sitting in Atlanta waiting to be assigned and watching the national news on TV. The news always reported the number of fatalities and told stories about some of the men. Although his name wasn’t mentioned, I got chills down my spine and said, “K.C. Is dead.” He hadn’t been required to do any more patrols because his remaining tour of service was only three days. However, because he wanted to spend the remaining time with his men, he volunteered to go out on a final patrol with them. He took point [led the patrol], stepped on a landmine, and was killed. My wife and I established a scholarship at our alma mater in his honor. I still think about this incident with great sadness.

One week later I got orders to ship out. It was all hush-hush. We had no idea where we were headed. We loaded our supplies at the train tracks. After flying for three days in a C130 transit plane, touching down in Kentucky, San Francisco, Honolulu, Wake Island, Guam, and flying over Vietnam, we landed at Korat Air Force Base in Thailand.

I was stationed in a field hospital. They called it a mobile lab, but it didn’t really move. It was in the middle of nowhere and I hated it. It served as support for the air base for daily bombing raids on Vietnam and was 80 kilometers from Cambodia. There were illegal flights over Cambodia and Laos against the will of those countries’ governments, in order to reach Vietnam.

While there, I learned that doctors are not what you think. I had always considered them intelligent, but there was one in particular that opened my eyes. Ours was considered a “hardship tour of duty,” which meant, among other things, that no relatives or spouses were allowed there. One black sergeant violated the rule and kept his diabetic wife there. At the time of the incident I was on call. A doctor from Beverly Hills—a draftee—was on duty. The sergeant’s wife came into the clinic, needing insulin. Dr. H refused to see her. I pleaded with him to no avail. After talking to her for a while, I went off to sleep. In the morning I went into the lab, which also served as a morgue, and found her lying on a slab. I was sickened and furious. That rich SOB! I will never forget that incident.

Dr. H would order all the lab tests he could think of, regardless of need and even though he knew we couldn’t carry out many of them due to our limited facilities. But he would make it an immediate order [called STAT] and then ignore the results.

In one area of Thailand, soldiers were collecting mosquitoes for a malaria study. A soldier from the study came into the hospital, feeling sick. Malaria showed up in his lab test. Dr. H didn’t know what to do, and the kid died. The pathologist, a captain and our boss, had the authority to bring charges. But Dr. H had more time in and therefore outranked our boss. Also, our boss had acquired his medical degree through the army; i.e., he wasn’t wealthy. Therefore he feared retaliation and backed down. Charges were never brought.

I didn’t experience much danger in Thailand. Once when I was at the enlisted men’s club, the “Thai Cong” blew up our ammo depot, which scared the hell out of us. The whole building shook.

Once three MIGs were intercepted as they headed towards the base. A red alert was declared; the base was blacked out, except for the lighted red cross on the hospital roof. Our C.O. insisted that that light be turned off also. It took a long time to figure out how to do this. Meanwhile, we sat in the dark in the hospital over a flask of scotch.

Another incident was at the grand opening of Veena’s Restaurant. Veena was the wife of the former hospital C.O., who died leaving her his military insurance, enabling her to start the restaurant on Freedom Highway, a road built by the U.S. headed towards Cambodia. Veena was especially fond of us hospital personnel and treated us like royalty, so 90% of the hospital personnel along with most of the base command were present at the opening of her restaurant. I was approached by a friend from CID [military intelligence] and ordered to inform the general that we needed to evacuate immediately because the CID had found three mortars in the surrounding area directly aimed at the restaurant and it was unknown if there were more.

As to casualties, in order to cope with them, I had to gradually learn to distance myself from the horror that was the reality of my job. I remember one pilot that crashed at the end of the runway and nothing was left of him but a mass of charcoal; nothing human-looking remained of his body at all.

When I arrived in Oakland in 1968 at the end of my tour of duty, we were required to wear our uniforms to fly home on stand-by. Our commander had warned us to ignore any demonstrators. It was a rainy day. As we were driven by bus to a plane bound for San Diego, we saw demonstrators with their anti-war signs. It was painful, the lack of understanding for the effort I had just made in serving my country.

Last year, along with another Vietnam-era vet and a World War II vet, I had occasion to visit the World War II museum in New Orleans. It was a moving experience. It had taken 46 years for me to hear the two words, “Welcome home.”

 

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