Since the issue of race is back in the headlines, I see the opportunity to relate a personal experience I had while nearing the end of my tour in Vietnam.
Having grown up in an all white suburb of Chicago and having been educated in an all white school district, I did not know any black people.
When I arrived in Vietnam, the four platoons of Charley Company each had Platoon Sergeants who were black men. They were Sergeant Martin, Sergeant Bentley, Sergeant Caldwell, and the leader of my platoon, Sergeant Redmon. These men were what we termed, “Lifers”. The way they saw it, civilian life had offered them very little. Our previous commanding officer was black also. His name was Captain Gordon.
The color of one’s skin means nothing when all hell breaks loose or when one is part of a four or six man nighttime ambush.
There were many discussions of race. These learning experiences may not have taken place had we not been in such close living conditions. It came as no surprise when black soldiers listed their grievances. What did surprise me was when men like Sergeant Redmon would chasten young black soldiers such as the new guy from Chicago who arrived in Charley Company.
Both Sergeant Redmon and I were nearing the end of our tours when this new guy sat down with us one evening for chow. Several of us were in the company’s rear area eating chicken off the grill and swilling down large amounts of beer. It didn’t take this new guy very long to make himself at home and begin a tirade about racism and how he did not want to be a part of Charley Company because he heard we were all racists.
My initial reaction was not to say anything, because I knew Sergeant Redmon would, as he always did, think of the right words to say. What could I have said anyway?
I wish I could recall Redmon’s words verbatim. I do remember him using a stern tone with this new guy, telling him that he was wrong. He did it in a way that was fatherly. It’s funny, looking back, that Redmon was 26 years old at the time. But we looked up to him as we would a father. Two tours in Vietnam garner respect. It came across real fast to the new guy. He became quiet.
Guys like Redmon, who we used to call The Dirty Red, always could be counted on, no matter what. Did his resolution of this situation occur because he was black? I’m sure that it did. However, I’m also sure, as the new guy looked around and saw as many white guys as black guys sitting around enjoying themselves, he decided to give Charley Company a chance. He had no choice anyway.
In a couple of days he was gone to the bush and I never saw him again but word of his heroism in the field, a week or two later, quickly found its way back to where we were in the rear.
A typhoon came in from the South China Sea and pounded the troops in the field without mercy. It was the beginning of the monsoon season. I was so damned glad not to be out in the field and was eagerly counting the few days I had left in Vietnam.
The new guy from Chicago was on a night ambush that was set apart a few hundred meters from the rest of the company. It was forbidden to blow up air mattresses (they made noise when a soldier rolled over) and it was unwise to take off one’s boots (if the ambush got blown, being bootless would hinder a run back to the main body of the company). These were ignored and proved to be disastrous.
I never could sleep on ambush and I wore my boots for days on end, so I can’t relate to either of the above.
Like a dam holding back millions of gallons of water, a paddy dike broke and the men in the ambush were swept away. M16s, a machine gun, boots, packs, ammunition, canteens and anything else they carried that night was washed away. The new guy from Chicago was the only soldier in a position to rescue his buddies who were calling for help in the darkness. He got all of them in a group on to high ground and they waited out the night.
The next day they realized they were separated from Charley Company – with an M16 as their only weapon. Their only recourse was to walk back to LZ Stinson-which they could see in the distance-with some of them barefooted. They had no radio as they were not taken on ambushes.
Since I was not with these men, I must admit that any recounting is sketchy at best. Their entire march back to safety took them through Viet Cong areas of operation. Fortunately for them the only Vietnamese they encountered were rice farmers who eyed them suspiciously.
The new guy from Chicago was awarded The Soldier’s Medal, an award that is extremely difficult to earn. It is given only to those who show heroism in a non-combat situation. I can only say in spirit, “Well done”.
Sergeant Redmon died in 1985 or 1986. What a great leader he was and what a fun guy to serve with. It gives me great satisfaction to remember him calling me his “Homey” because we were both from the Chicago area.
All these years later, I hope the new guy from Chicago looks, from time to time, at his Soldier’s Medal and feels pride. And I hope that he is able to look within himself and see that his valor was not a result of any racial consideration, but, instead, it resulted from his seeing the need of his fellow soldiers.