Memorial Day 2012: Looking Back with Sadness and a Smile
Monday, May 28, 2012 • 8:53am
Monday, May 28, is Memorial Day. For most of us it marks the beginning of summer; it is an extra day off, a day to go shopping, to the shore or to lounge around the back yard with a can of beer, the barbecue and some friends. For some of us it is a sad day when we remember the men and women who never made it back home. But mixed with the sadness are some fond memories and some funny ones.
When we arrived, as a newly deployed unit to Vietnam, our vehicles were on another ship that wouldn't reach Saigon for a few weeks. The entire battalion was confined to the base. A Signal Battalion without trucks and signal gear is useless. We were assigned two, two-and-one-half-ton trucks, called deuce-and-a-halfs, for hauling garbage and rations, plus one Jeep for the battalion commanding officer.
My senior non-commissioned officer, Specialist Fifth Class Reynolds, whose sleeves were tattered from sewing on rank and ripping it off, approached me soon after we got to base camp and in a conspiratorial tone said, "Lieutenant, would you like to have a vehicle until our Jeeps get here?" I asked Reynolds how he would get this vehicle and he said he had a friend in a motor pool down the road. I told Reynolds, "You may get the vehicle, only if you show me a piece of paper saying it is legitimately assigned to you." Sure enough, Reynolds showed up the next day with a three-quarter ton truck, which was a buckboard of a vehicle, designed during World War I as an ambulance, and a form saying he was assigned the vehicle.
The first thing I did was to grab my weapon, order Reynolds and another of my men to arm themselves and order Reynolds to take me to Saigon, for a little R&R. Along Tu Do Street were numerous bars where lonely soldiers bought tea for attractive Vietnamese women, who would take turns getting on stage and singing beautiful, if strange to our ears, songs in Vietnamese. Our tea shop interlude was followed by a trip to the main supply depot, where we loaded up on film, flashbulbs and other supplies that my photo unit needed.
In the Army, no matter how small the unit, being a unit commander carries with it special privileges. I could go to any supply depot and order material needed for my unit. But I was only supposed to requisition equipment and supplies on my Table of Organization and Equipment. However, we were a small photographic unit and the equipment we were authorized was straight out of World War II -- big 4"x5" film Speed Graphic cameras, special "combat cameras" that jammed as soon as they were used and similar useless gear. We just ditched that old, useless stuff and went to a Post Exchange and bought 35mm cameras with lens assortments, or we would give shopping lists to guys going to Tokyo or Hong Kong on R&R. Our favorite camera was an underwater Nikonos because rain and humidity could not ruin our film.
One day I was on one of my now routine supply trips, when I was approached by a Major in the supply depot, asking me what kind of unit I had. Vamping, because I was asking for stuff that was unauthorized, I said, "Photo unit, sir." To which he replied "Come with me!" My heart was in my mouth. I expected a court martial was in my future! He then escorted me to a warehouse full of stacks of cases of film, which the good Major said was just going to waste. "Take as much as you need," he said. And I did. I loaded my Jeep with Kodachrome and Ektachrome film and went immediately to the back door of the Saigon Officer's club, where an accommodating Sergeant traded several cases of film for a case of frozen steaks. I took those steaks back to the base camp and my men had a hearty feast that night, along with a few cases of beer, which appeared mysteriously and about which I never asked the origin.
I remember the time, in Vietnam, when I told the girls who cleaned our base camp quarters that the Vietnamese expression of exclamation, "Choy d' Oy" was translated to "Oy Vey" in English. Of course, Oy Vey is not an English expression, it is Yiddish, but I wanted to have some fun. After a few weeks, you could walk by any of the tents in which our battalion slept and hear frequent shouts of "Oy Vey" from the housemaids, marking that something went wrong.
About two months later, the Jewish Chaplain decided to leave Saigon for a day and visit our remote outpost. As he walked through our battalion area, the young women who cooked and cleaned were shouting "Oy Vey" from every corner of the area. The chaplain never said a word to me, since I was the only Jewish soldier on the base and it had to come from me, but as he was climbing into his helicopter, he just looked at me, smiled slightly and shook his head.
When I came home from Vietnam I became Troop Commander of the Army motion picture production facility in New York, which is now the Astoria Studios. I drove into the barracks parking lot one day while the men were holding morning formation. As I got out of my car I heard the discordant sounds of Tiny Tim singing "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," which was popular then. It was being played by some joker on the third floor of the barracks to make the men laugh.
The men got very quiet when they saw me and tried to signal their cohort in crime as I ran up the stairs. I snuck into the room from which the music was being played and loudly called "Attention!" The man turned around and turned gray! I told him in a loud voice all the men below could hear, "Now you come tiptoe with me!" The formation below broke up with laughter. I made the disc jockey sit outside my office and stew for an hour while the First Sergeant, the Company Clerk and I had a good laugh behind closed doors. I later told the First Sergeant to give him an extra day's KP or guard duty and let him go.
Being in the military is stressful; as they used to say in the old movies, "A guy could get killed there!" But there is another side -- camaraderie and good times, caring for one another and memories of youth that last a lifetime. I am moved by the fact that whenever I attend an American Legion meeting or a reunion with old comrades, a major order of business is inquiring about the health of our brethren and doing what we can to help them through hard times.
So, on Memorial Day, I will be sad for a while, remembering the men and women who didn't make it back home. But I will also remember the sense of belonging -- Jew and Gentile; Black, White, Hispanic, Native American and Asian; North, South, East and West -- melded together into a single family, with a fraternal bond that needs no passwords or secret handshakes, but is as strong and as lasting as our lives.
Henry Bassman has written about high-technology and medical technology (biotechnology, medical devices and healthcare issues) for more than 40 years. He retired from AT&T, served in the U.S. Army where he became a captain and worked for ABC News. He is now affiliated with a small investment bank. Articles by Henry can be seen on ABCNews.com and other business Web sites. Henry has lived in Summit, NJ for 37 years and has been married for more than 40 years. He has three daughters who graduated from Summit High School.
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