I received some odd assignments as assistant adjutant of the 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) in the fall of 1962. I supervised the carving of a large pair of parachute wings out of ice for a formal ball. I
ordered the names of officers departing from the Group headquarters engraved on boxes of dessert bronzeware purchased cheaply in Thailand (field grade) and on sterling silver silent butlers purchased
even more cheaply on Okinawa (company grade). I had my ass chewed into slivers of bloody fat for misspelling Lt. Col Matola’s name on his farewell gift, a brass usabata. I do not to this day know what a usabata is or what purpose it may serve, other than as a platform for engraving. I found all this deeply humiliating.
My selection as assistant adjutant had nothing to do with any administrative skills I might have, which were nil. I had become the assistant adjutant so that I might perform the additional duty of Public Information Officer. There was no slot for a PIO in the Table of Organization and Equipment of a Special Forces Group. But the Group Commander, Col. Robert W. “Woody” Garrett had determined that his best shot at even one star was good publicity for the Group. This was so because the general who commanded the U.S. Army, Ryukyu Islands (USARYIS) Lt. Gen. Paul W. “Small Paul” Carraway hated, or was rumored to hate, combat troops. In 33 years of military service he had never, as Colonel Garrett put it “smelled smoke in combat.”
Col. Garrett, however, had smelled a lot of it. In World War II he had at first commanded a company in the 6th Ranger Battalion, as did Bull Simons. Then, at age 27 Col. Garrett had been promoted to major and taken command of the battalion. This guy had been Bull Simons commanding officer. To me he was a god. But a strange and whimsical god. Hence my being hijacked to Group Headquarters. While I was cranking out press releases my buddies, my classmates from SFOC were going to Vietnam, on six-month temporary duty tours and returning covered with glory. Me, I was covered with a pair of novice parachutist wings and shame.
“I don’t know what you’re complaining about,” Col. Garrett challenged me on one of those occasions on which I groveled and begged to be put on a team and sent in harm’s way. “You get more training than anybody.” This was true in a way. I got to do all the flashy stuff, so I could write it up for the 1st Group magazine, The Liberator, or for Pacific Stars and Stripes. I made night drops in Korea (frozen DZ, fractured coccyx) and water jumps into the East China Sea. For the water jumps we were barefoot and bareheaded. We wore shorts and t-shirts and hitting the water was like sinking into a warm
bath. I sat in a rubber boat, with a full A team, on the deck of the USS Perch, the Navy’s troop carrier sub for the Pacific, at night under a quarter moon and heard the horn blow and the command, “Dive! Dive! Dive! Dive! Dive!”, followed by a frightful FRA-A- A-CK!!!” as the gills or whatever the hell they’re called opened and the water gurgled and the sub sank out from under us and the froth rose around us and we paddled hard so the giant gloop of the sub going down wouldn’t take us down with it. Then we rowed to Northern Okinawa for a simulated snatch of a nuclear scientist or some such. Phosphorescent plankton that I took for St. Elmo’s fire dripped off the paddles as we rowed for shore.
The angriest I ever was in SF was when the operations officer failed to notify me that the SCUBA committee was called out for a salvage job when the Midori Maru went down with 140 passengers and
crew on board. The Midori Maru was an inter-island ferry. The SCUBA committee brought all the bodies and much of the salvageable stuff up. Col. Garrett had been a swimmer at West Point and somebody got
his picture, in full SCUBA gear, sitting on a Kawasaki 650 on the deck, 135 feet below, a stream of bubbles going from his regulator to the surface. When I jumped the operations officer about it later he said he didn’t think I’d be interested. A lieutenant may not strangle a major and this one would have been hard to strangle. But I wanted to. So, great, I was learning all the Sneaky Pete ways to infiltrate
but I was losing basic skills. My code speed was about eight words a minute and dropping fast. I hadn’t fired a weapon of any sort since Bragg, much less learned how to repair foreign weapons. It would have been some consolation if I believed that publicity would get Col. Garrett promoted but I believed it would have the opposite effect. Alas, Gen. Carraway, our rose-growing, administration-loving five-foot five and one-half foot general was never going to promote Col. Garrett or anyone like him to flag rank.
Colonel Garrett’s best shot would have been to keep a low profile and make sure his paperwork
was perfect. This, as you know, is not the Special Forces way. Consider, if you will, the event for which I had had the jump wings carved from ice, our formal ball. This event, so far as I could determine, had no function other than to convince Gen. Carraway that the officers of Special Forces were not thugs and snake-eaters but were in fact good little gentlemen, patiently serving their time, dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s. We had the ice-wings and the cake. The officers wore mess whites and the ladies wore long gowns. We raised our glasses in formal toasts. We put on innocuous skits. We danced the night away. Indeed, it all went perfectly until the general, well pleased so far, left at ten-thirty, to be up early the next morning to cultivate his roses. He was most displeased, however, to discover an SF captain and an SF major, both drunk as lords, in their beautiful mess whites, duking it out in the parking lot. Both were transferred to the 503d the next day but the damage had been done. Parenthetically, the 503d had not yet been redesignated the 173d Airborne Brigade. It was formally known by the cumbersome title The First Airborne Battle Group, 503d Infantry Combat Team, Reinforced (Separate).
I once heard a Marine lieutenant ask an officer from the 503d , “Okay, SF has Airborne in parentheses after their designation and they yell ‘Airborne! Airborne!’ on their runs. What do you guys yell, ‘Separate! Separate!’?”
Col. Garrett had promised he would only keep me in the PIO slot for six months, then put me on a team bound for Vietnam. But to me six months was an eternity. Most of the junior officers in SF had a
couple of years in a TO&E Airborne unit, either the 82d or the 101st. Most were OCS guys with enlisted time. Most were jocks, engineers, Rangers. And they were going to Vietnam and returning covered with
bronze and silver stars, CIBs, Vietnam jump wings, Montagnard bracelets. I was none of that. I was a ROTC kid with a degree in journalism who had come to SF from a basic training center. I was on fire to
prove myself. And they wanted me to go to Taipei to buy Christmas cards for the Group.
That’s right, Taipei for Christmas cards. We’d been running a joint exercise with the Chinese Special Forces on Taiwan. Some of our best teams had run around in the hills for three months. Col
Garrett and selected members of the Group staff were going over for the critique and I was to accompany them.
The Republic of China was not a member of the international copyright convention. Consequently, there was a thriving market in bootleg, pirated books. One could buy most best-sellers and most standard reference works there, hardback books for from seventy-five cents to a buck and a half. Consequently, other printing was cheap. The combined Officers and NCOs Wives Clubs had put together a project to
get knockout Christmas cards for the Group and as assistant adjutant I was to be the project officer. I was delighted with the opportunity to go to Taiwan but Jesus! Christmas cards? The wives had come up with four designs and I had to narrow their choice to one. I can only remember two of them now. One was a gag card, a cartoon Santa Claus going down the chimney wearing a green beret and a bellicose expression, carrying a rucksack full of automatic weapons, old rifles with long bayonets and grenade launchers. The other was midnight blue, with a four-pointed gold star and the words
“Peace … Our Profession” in Old English letters. I had to pick one, from a consensus of the senior NCOs. The consensus of the senior NCOs was that they didn’t need to be bothered with this shit. My
favorite reaction was from the Charlie Company sergeant major. “What the fuck is this?”, he snarled, waving the midnight blue card, “’Peace … Our profession’ my ass. You get a card that says, ‘War … Our Profession’ and I’ll buy that son of a bitch.” I responded, “Not really in keeping with the spirit of Christmas, Sergeant Major,” in response. He gave me a look that made the utterance of the sentence, “Who gives a shit?” completely unnecessary.
As far as I know nobody did, give a shit that is, except the wives’ clubs. I certainly didn’t. And I don’t think the matter weighed heavily on Col. Garrett’s agenda. These things were on my mind as I drove my rusted old Rambler to my home in beautiful Awase Meadows. My wife and I lived in a virtual cartoon of suburbia in the hills overlooking an expanse of paddy-diked rice fields and beyond them the coastal strip of highway one, with its 35-mph island-wide speed limit and its signs. One said, “Folding Screen” on one side but “Floding Screen” on the other. My personal favorite was “Too Much Accident Area — Futenma Police Department.” There was another which perfectly reproduced the Triumph logo but which advertised “Triumph” motorcycles in letters four feet high. Most of my classmates at SFOC had come to Okinawa together to staff the newly formed Delta Company of 1st Group. Those of us who were married had found housing together in newly and oddly constructed off-base housing. My next-door neighbor, Crews McCulloch, would become my first commanding officer in Vietnam and lifelong friend. Across the street were Tom Kiernan and his wife,Grace. I hadn’t known Tom well at Bragg but we’d come to Okinawa on the same flight.
On Midway Island, where our triple-tailed Constellation refueled again I went down to the water to look at the masts of the sunken warships in the harbor. Tom was already there. He was a history major. So, we talked about the Battle of Midway and by the time we boarded the plane we were friends. Tom was also an ROTC graduate, from Fordham. He had been a Distinguished Military Graduate and hence had a regular army commission, as opposed to my reserve one. He was a Ranger. Tom was pulling into his driveway on a popping Kawasaki street bike as I pulled into mine in the Rambler. He swung off he bike, tall, angular, with narrow shoulders, an impressive schnoz, quite Roman in fact and high cheekbones. I dismounted from the Rambler, being careful not to dislodge any big flakes of rust. My car was rotting from underneath in the salty air of Okinawa.
“Hey there, Mr. PIO,” Tom called. “What’s shakin’?”
“I’m going to Taiwan,” I said.
“Neato!” he replied. “I’m going to Vietnam.”
“Go fuck yourself,” I responded cheerfully.
My contact on Taiwan was Bill Rovan, another classmate who had been assigned first to Okinawa, then selected to be Executive Officer of the resident team on Taiwan. Bill and I had shared a Quonset hut by the sea with two other lieutenants when we first got to Okinawa. He was a nice-looking guy, average height, or maybe a bit below that. He looked like the kind of guy who should be climbing the corporate ladder somewhere but he was so proud of being an airborne infantry officer that he positively glowed with it. He squared me away completely, guided me in the selection of a printing company and through the process of bargaining on Taiwan. Maybe Col. Garrett wanted to do me a good turn, or further my education, because we could as easily have sent the designs to the resident team and let Bill handle the whole thing. It took all of two hours to transact my business in Taipei. I ordered 20,000 Christmas cards and at the same time bought for myself a complete library of books on guerrilla warfare, about fifteen literary classics and all the James Bond books in hardback, for about two hundred bucks.
I would monitor the critique but basically, I was through. After our work was completed Bill ran me by his place.
He had purchased a bottle green MGB in Taipei and rented a villa in an area known as Peitou, which was a district composed primarily of whorehouses. The villa had a high stone fence around it, with jagged glass set in the concrete to shield it from burglars. Bill had forgotten his key, so he hired a nearby urchin to go over the fence and open the gate. It took the kid maybe two minutes. He was unmarked by the jagged glass. The villa was large and spacious, shaded by trees and as pleasant an environment as one might imagine. Bill was a handsome young man with a glamorous job in an exotic locale where his money went about five times as far as it would at home. He had a hot car and lived surrounded by attractive willing women. But he was worried that Vietnam would pass him by.
I returned to my hotel, surprised to find an envelope in my box addressed to 1st Lt. James T. Morris. T is not my middle initial but that’s an easy mistake to make. I tore open the note. “Dear James: I
am so glad you come back Taipei …” It was from some young woman, expressing great longing for James. And it gave the location of a bar where she might be found. It was either a) a mistake, or b) a come-on. Then my mind connected to another possibility. Taiwan could be presumed to be swarming with Red Chinese spies. As a Special Forces officer I might seem packed with military secrets, although in truth I had none. Could this be a scheme to catch me in a compromising situation and blackmail me for the Yankee war plans for the Mainland? I checked the room thoroughly for bugs and finding none, lay back on the bed to read “Thunderball.”
The debrief, at least what I saw of it, was nothing like what I expected. I never saw a map, chart, or graph. I must assume that the teams and staff sections held their own, where those things were in evidence. But I was in bloused khakis with Col. Garrett and his contact was Gen. Chao, who, as they used to say back in Oklahoma, “put on the dog.” With us it was all Chinese modern décor, padded chairs at coffee tables, with chilled rolled washcloths on a platter, to cut the heat of the day. “Tea or coffee? Hors d’oeuvre?” I learned that all things had not gone as planned throughout the exercise and many valuable lessons were learned thereby. For instance, at that time the standard SF way of lighting a drop zone for a night drop was to fill number ten cans, the kind that are used to pack large quantities of vegetables, stewed tomatoes and the like, for mess halls, half full of sand and gasoline and laid out in an L or T configuration with another offset to show the direction of the wind.
What the Americans did not know was that Taiwan had a large number of brick factories and these brick factories had their chimneys laid out in L and T configurations, resulting in the American teams being dropped at random all over the island. The methods they used to get from where they landed to their assigned areas were many and varied but often involved the use of taxicabs. The conversation of the higher commanders at that coffee meeting was earnest and serious but I couldn’t understand any of it.
There was an exchange of fancy plaques. One thing I did learn though, was that there was going to be a friendship jump the following morning. Then we adjourned for a twenty-five course Chinese dinner
for about five hundred, everybody who had participated in the exercise and everyone who had bought Christmas cards. This was followed by truly amazing acrobats. “Hey, Bill,” I said after the acrobats. “I’m hurtin’ for a pay jump. How about getting me on that manifest?”
“Sure,” said Bill. “Got any fatigues?”
I shook my head.
“I’ll loan you a pair of cammies.”
This was before the Agency ordered fatigues for us in the tiger-striped pattern, so the cammies Bill loaned me were in the Sears Roebuck woodland pattern. That afternoon we went by his team house and he got them out of his locker. I was four or five inches taller than Bill. They were tight and I couldn’t blouse the trouser legs but they would serve. There was a similar problem with the chute. These were
standard U.S. Army T-10s but the straps had been cut down and sewed down for the smaller Chinese jumpers. I couldn’t let the straps out far enough for a comfortable fit. When I got in the whole rig I looked like Quasimodo with a hernia.
That afternoon Rovan delivered me to the flight line, squeezed into his cammies, the legs hanging even with my boot tops. All the Americans who had participated in the exercise were drawn up in ranks and I fell in on the back end. A couple of ROC C46s were parked beside the strip. So was a big pile of T-10 assemblies; chutes, reserves and kit bags. One rank at a time we drew our rigs, chuted up and were organized into sticks. It was the very definition of a Hollywood jump, no rucks, no weapons, no wind.
Nonetheless the old adrenalin surged. I was thrilled at the prospect of jumping a C46. This was the aircraft that had flown paratroopers to Sicily, to Normandy and which had flown the Hump to drop supplies to teams fighting the Japanese in China and Burma. No matter how goofy I looked or felt, this was a thrill I would remember and savor.
I didn’t know anybody on the airplane but they were fun to watch. For one thing, even though I didn’t know them, they all knew each other. They had been running around in the woods for three months and for the most part hadn’t seen anyone but their own team and the Chinese acting as their guerrillas. They were choked with war lies and could hardly wait to compare notes about the exercise. Most jumps are intense but there was a party atmosphere. The aircraft was filled with chatter and raucous laughter.
Then someone yelled, “Hey! Who’s the jumpmaster?” We all looked around but nobody pled guilty. It wasn’t a problem. I was one of perhaps three guys on the plane who wasn’t jumpmaster qualified. Finally somebody else yelled, “Let Major Peters do it. He’s the tallest man on the aircraft.” A tall major, about 6’6” stumbled to the front of the plane and made the standup motion. He didn’t say anything. We stood up and he crooked his finger and tugged at an imaginary static line. We hooked up and checked our static lines without command. He patted his reserve and we checked our gear and the pack of the man ahead. Finally he cupped a hand to his ear and called “Sound off for equipment check!” The guy at the end of the stick called out “Okay!” and slapped the guy in front of him on the ass.
The call rippled forward without numbers, because no one had the slightest idea of his number in the stick. Major Peters moved into the door. There was no grab-ass now. It was showtime. The light winked green. Major Peters disappeared. The stick began its slow shuffle toward the door, left foot leading, stomping, gathering speed like a train leaving the station. The guy in front of me disappeared and I wheeled into the door. Blue above, green below. Lung Tan Drop Zone was like a pool table the size of Rhode Island, a huge flat manicured lawn. I vaulted up and out and felt the four little pops on my back that told me the rig was open. I looked up into a perfect green canopy with the sun shining through it. It seemed only a moment later that the ground rose and I hit and rolled, one of my few perfect parachute landing falls. I got out of the rig and stood up straight for the first time in about an hour. It felt good. My jump pay for the next three months was assured and that felt good too. I rigger-rolled my chute and put the assembly in the kit bag, shouldered it and walked to the turn-in point, feeling loose. I expected to hook up with Rovan and get ready to go back to Okinawa. But we were assembled in ranks again and a small Chinese general who bore a marked resemblance to Porky Pig came out and made a ringing speech about how we were all going to the Mainland together. “After you, my dear Alphonse,” was the thought that went through my mind. Then the general went down the line and put Chinese wings on us all. I could think of nothing as the general approached but the utter glee I felt that for a brief time at least my
shirt was going to be gaudier than Kiernan’s. The fact that it meant not a goddamn thing only added to my pleasure.
Tom stepped out of his house to greet me when I drove the rusty Rambler into my gravel drive. Apparently, he was just in from the field. He wore filthy fatigue pants, flip-flops and a home-died green t-shirt. His face and hands were still covered with green greasepaint. His team was just about ready for deployment. I approached him, smiling, chest out, Chinese wings gleaming. He looked at me and said, “You son of a bitch!” I was happy.
Tom and I stayed friends for years after that. Eventually I had two TDY tours in Vietnam and one PCS. He had two TDY tours and a PCS tour with MACV in Hue, where he fought during the Tet Offensive. The last time I saw him was in Columbia SC, where he was in Law School. He had changed his branch to MI and been the Chief of Military Intelligence for South Carolina. In that job he had a bunch of junior MI EM who had come back with time on their enlistments but who wanted to start college. The army let them start college but tasked them to infiltrate the Students for a Democratic Society, the
anti-war organization. Tom thought that was a waste of time and money and recommended that the program be discontinued, as the SDS members were merely citizens going about constitutionally protected activities. This recommendation was not accepted, twice and he resigned then
went to Law School. When he graduated he applied at several law firms and to the JAG, which made him the best offer. He went back in with twelve years service, at his original date of rank and four months after passing the bar he was a Lieutenant Colonel, Staff Judge Advocate for
Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. But that first night in Colombia we hung out with some of the
guys who used to work for him who were also in law school. During the conversation one of them mentioned that Tom had two Silver Stars. I don’t have two Silver Stars, nor one. So, I said, “What the fuck did you do to get two Silver Stars?”
He replied, “You remember what an average day was like in Special Forces?”
“Well, in MACV we had two days like that.”
Jim Morris served three tours with Special Forces in Vietnam. The second and third were cut short by serious wounds. He retired of wounds as a Major. His Vietnam memoir War Story won the first Bernal Diaz Award for military non-fiction. Morris is author of the story from which the film Operation Dumbo Drop was made and has produced numerous documentary television episodes about the Vietnam War. He is author of three books of non-fiction and five novels. He has appeared on MSNBC as a commentator on Special Operations.
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Featured Image Courtesy of Jim Morris