Herdin’ Cats

I moved through a pretty broad set of ranks in my career in the United States Air Force (USAF).  Starting out in the enlisted force, I advanced in minimal time through the rank of staff sergeant and later as a commissioned officer through the rank of lieutenant colonel.  Often I had occasion to reflect on what it must have been like for that handful of NCOs and officers tasked to supervise and lead us Palace Dog English language teachers while at Lackland Air Force Base and even more so in Saigon.

Our group was composed of old boys and young men in their early to late 20s, all in the rank of airman, airman first class, or sergeant during our first tours in Viet Nam.  We were just about at the bottom rung on the rank ladder.  At a normal USAF base in the continental United States (CONUS) we’d have been fresh fodder for the give-take orders system.  But not so with us.  We were all college graduates and several had advanced degrees.  Some had had real work experience before joining the USAF.  Most had joined up to avoid the draft-Army-Viet Nam pipeline.

We worked short workdays of about five to six hours determined by our students’ points in the American Language Course we used to teach them.  We lived in hotels converted to enlisted quarters; three to a room.  Local women were hired to spit shine our boots; wash, starch and iron our tropical weight fatigue uniforms; and clean our rooms.  A bus ferried us to and from schools across Saigon where we worked.  Life was far from tough for our select group living in the War Torn Citadel of Freedom.

Nam?  The jungle grunts and delta sailors deserved to use that term.  We should have used it only to milk sympathy.

How in the world did those staff and technical sergeants get us to follow their guidance?  How did the captain operations officer feel surrounded by his academic peers (or superiors?)?  How did the colonel commandant getting an easy ride his last few months in-country perceive his command?  With my much later developed perspective, those folks – that chain of command – performed their roles delicately.  It was good duty, but it was fraught with pitfalls.

Recall when it was learned we weren’t properly caring for our M-16 rifles?  Those weapons and many rounds of ammunition had been issued to us the first day or two of arriving in-country.  We carried them to and from school every day, keeping them in the corner while in class, but carried around our school compounds otherwise.  When we pulled guard duty two or three times during our one-year tours, we had those weapons with us for protection or to defend those sleeping under our watch.

Those rifles were potentially our life and death responsibility.  Yet, most of did not lift a finger to maintain those weapons.  Maintenance of cleaning and oiling them at least weekly was a necessity in the dusty humid environment of Saigon.  A grunt in the field would have done it daily.

I cleaned mine twice.

The first cleaning occurred because one of the staff NCOs or officers saw the condition of our weapons.  He probably saw one lying around with no one watching over it so he took a look at it.  He would have seen the barrel starting to rust and the whole thing loaded with dust in every crevice.  As a descent supervisor he would have spoken to the person responsible for that one weapon, and then gone on to see what others were doing with their weapons.  He would have been appalled.

No doubt, he was the reason all of us at Tan Son Nhut School got the word we’d have an inspection.  That event had several highlights for me.  We lined up in formation near the volleyball court in ranks three deep during the shift changeover at lunch time.  The morning shift was held over and we on the afternoon shift had arrived early.  It was South Viet Nam.  It was hot.  We were Palace Dogs.

One member of our group had solved the rust problem by sanding and polishing the barrel of his M-16.  Though still blackened, it almost glistened in the bright mid-day light.  That look was not what the US Army had specified to the manufacturers nor what they had created!  To help keep the barrel chamber clean, we’d been issued black plastic caps about two inches long to keep over the barrel opening at the muzzle.  Being laid around casually, some of those caps were missing.  One of the guys addressed that missing part by placing a condom (new, of course) over the muzzle.  There it was, covering the end and flopped over hanging down the side.  GIs can be creative.

They’re also resourceful and sometimes clever.  It was the early 70s.  Hair was long, but we were in the military, but we were in the USAF, but we were in a language school in Saigon.  We pushed; the system looked the other way.  A little.  Limits existed, though, so hair was part of that inspection.  Some of us got haircuts that night before the inspection; some were lookin’ good all the time.  Some blew it off and took their chances.

One particular friend exemplified why old Navy and Army manuals reportedly contained the admonition, “The enlisted man is a sly and cunning individual who bears constant watching.”  By the way, I checked this saying out many years later and found it to be an urban legend.  Anyway, there he stood just to the left of me and in the rank ahead.  His hair was above his collar and ears; it didn’t show around the opening of his cap.  But it was melting!  Yes, he had tackled his long hair situation by lubing it up with Vaseline or Butch Wax.  Now, those products served all sorts of purposes in Viet Nam, but I’d never seen them oozing down the neck of a GI in formation in the hot midday sun while he stood inspection.

I was so proud of him!

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