Summer of ’65 was a hell’va time.
War in Vietnam was in the offing and at Fort Riley, Kansas the 1st/28th battalion, 3rd Brigade, 1st Division was marshalling for deployment.
All hours of the day and night replacements were coming in, trucks and armored tracks were moving in loud convoy through residential areas and there was palatable sense of excitement.
2nd Lt. Larry Peterson, my roommate at Officer Candidate School, and I were in the olive drab crowd of replacements assigned to “A” company in the 1st/28th.
Of the sixteen 2nd Lts assigned the battalion to command infantry platoons, a 2nd Lt. Bob Dunn from Portland, Oregon was sent to “B” company and a 2nd Lt. George McCoy from Munster, Indiana was sent to “C” company.
In our first week-end Pete, McCoy and I were among the people who rallied around Dunn at the Officer’s Club because he was loud with enormous humor. Others that night also tended to drift in his direction because he was the center of the laughter.
But there was a problem of hanging with Bob. His Dad played for the no-face guard, leather helmeted Green Bay Packers, and Dunn inherited his toughness. And his quick temper. Anyone who took exception to his guffaws and noise, Bob’d hit square in the nose.
Sort of added to the general excitement of marshalling for war, so it wasn’t a big thing, but after a while others tended to keep their distance… except Pete and me, who Bob really liked and wanted for friends, and George McCoy, who just wasn’t intimidated.
So we made it a foursome and as we spent time together we each found our place in the group. Laughed a lot. Drank a lot of beer. Learned about our extended families back home, but mostly lived loudly in the here and now.
George was our leader, just because…. He wasn’t imposing with his personality, though he probably had the quickest mind. In our group we all had an equal vote, but George’s vote had juice, you know what I mean? A stranger come up to the 4 of us standing out somewhere, could take a close look and see George was the boss. He looked like Patton.
He was clean… even dirty, he was neat. He had an open honest face and a sense of good will. Didn’t laugh hard as I remember it. Just’d smile big. Dunn had a way of exiting in which he stood on one foot, and bent over waving his hands back and forth in front of his knees like doing the Charleston and skip back out of the room on that one foot… pure Dunn. You just had to laugh. Except George, who’d just smile big.
Pete from Nebraska and George from Indiana had similar dispositions. I was closer to Dunn, but not nearly his equal in making fun. Together we were a proud, sassy, cocky, happy, fit and handsome group… mightly enjoying the fellowship.
One night we were in the parking lot of a local bar, killing a six pack of beer just to see it die and Pete, looking to the west, said, “You commies just don’t know what’s on the way over there to your house. It’s Bob Dunn. And he’s drunk. And pissed.”
“And I’m coming with my friends too…” Bob slurred. “George McCoy here’s a killing machine. He don’t take no sap from anyone, you hear?”
George said, “Ah, Bob, they don’t know what sap is…”
Dunn threw his finished bottle of beer towards the almost empty pack and yelled, “I bet you know shit…. George McCoy’s goin’ knock you shitless, you hear me.”
George said, “Just call me toilet paper George.”
Another time we were coming out of an Officer’s club annex heading to the parking lot along a narrow pathway when some group of young officers coming our way took exception to Bob hogging the path. And the last guy in passing, said something.
Wooo, he shouldn’t have done that.
Bob hit him so hard I think he was unconscious before he hit the ground, though I don’t know for sure… I just know he wasn’t heard from again. I went back to stop Bob from fighting the rest of the man’s group but somehow lost my footing and, on my knees, took a blow to the top of my head that crushed me to the ground.
George finally got Bob to stop hitting on the other guys – who really didn’t have a lot of fight to them – and Pete got me up and to our car.
Bob showed no wounds from the fight, though I gave the memorable line, that has come down through time, “Sure hurts sometime to have fun with you guys.” Bob in the front laughed and laughed.
We all made home visits once the battalion got a departure date. Poignant time saying good bye to Mom and Dad.
Back at Riley we were loaded on a long, long, long troop train for California.
Last car in the troop train heading west from Ft Riley
When we de-assed the train in the Oakland shipyard, we stood in a line that seemed to stretch for a mile as 1st Division soldiers slowly made their way up the gang plank to board the mammoth USS Mann.
On board ship somehow one or the other of us secured a 4 man cabin for ourselves near the dining room.
Finally loaded, tugs pulled the Mann from its berth and McCoy joined me on the deck as we sailed by Alcatraz. We watched in silence, lost in thought about the sights around us. George finally said, “It’s like the movies. Going to war is just like the movies.”
We sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and headed out to sea.
Against orders Bob had brought two canteens full of liquor aboard ship, so we occasionally had a “one swallow” night cap… Bob watching our throats closely to make sure that there was only one bobbing of the Adam’s Apple. Passing the canteen around was a fellowship bonder, but by all acc’ts our most memorable time on board ship was after the dinner meal when the four of us we would retreat to the highest deck we were allowed and talked.
Me, Bob Dunn, George McCoy and Larry Peterson
George had unique moxie. You know that “Messin’ with Sasquatch” TV commercial for beef jerky where some stupid, nerdy white people tease Sasquatch – and then when he finds out he’s being fucked with, he throws them into the next county – you know the commercials, right?
Well once we started the upper deck bull shit sessions after supper, we started doing odd man out coin flips to pick someone in the group to go back down to the dining room and get either some sweet bread or some cookies that were always put out thirty minutes or so after evening chow.
Once early on Bob lost out on the odd man out coin toss and left us to go get the sweets, and George suggested that in the future he’d signal to Pete and me by either scratching his butt or his head, on what side we should put our coins. He scratched his butt, we’d put a tails up after we had supposedly flipped. Scratch his head we’d put a heads on the coin under our covering hand. Bob not knowing what was going on, would just flip and occasionally get the same coin flip we had purposely set… but after a time or two he would always be odd man out and have to go for the cookies.
Pete and I told George that Bob would someday find out… and did George want to venture a guess what he would do? We suggested our little buddy wear a life jacket because he was going to get thrown way out to sea … and George said, “Naw… I know my Bob. He won’t ever find out.”
And he never did…
But boy you talk about playing with fire.
After a week or ten days at sea we heard about the 1st Cav skirmishes with the NVA in the South Vietnam highlands. Whole units getting wiped out. 2nd Lts living only a minute or two in a fire fight.
That night I lamented the fact that we weren’t goin’ to no “policing action,” hell we really were goin’ to war, and that’s not what I really, really signed up for. War doesn’t fuck around. Man could get hurt.
Only way to face this thing is to figure I and you and you and you over there are the meanest sumbitches on the face of this earth, certainly we’re the meanest sumbitches in the many valleys of death over there. Right? How’s that for a good mind set?”
George said, “War isn’t so difficult to deal with, really, when it comes down to the basics. Don’t over think it. You make the best of it day to day. Learn as you go. What can happen? One, the worst is you get killed. But hell, you get killed, you’re dead. It doesn’t hurt anymore. Somebody else has a problem with that, then it’s their problem. You’re dead. You’re at peace. And the next worst, what’s that, you get wounded and you get sent back home. Not too bad there, getting sent back home. Hell, you can get on with your life. What does that leave? You don’t get wounded or killed. You finish your tour, you go home. It’s that simple. One, you die, but dead you’re in no pain. Two, you get wounded, you go home. Or three you don’t get wounded. But no matter what happens, it’s OK.”
“The important thing isn’t living or dying,” Pete suggested. “None of us think we’re going to die anyway. The important thing is how we handle ourselves over there. We platoon leaders are the ones who have to get the men moving when bullets are flying and bombs are going off, when there is noise and confusion. That’s the time. Right then. Will we have the presence of mind, the good judgment, the courage, and the luck to do the job? Or will we freeze and hug the ground? Can we hold ourselves responsible for the death of our people and keep on going? What’s it like, really, to get shot at? To give orders that get people killed?”
We were lost in thought. I looked up at the stars and thought about freezing in the door of that airplane during jump training. Would combat be different? I had started this conversation by saying we were going to get through the next year’s walk through the valley of death by just being tough, but I sat now and worried about my personal courage.
“You know what?” McCoy finally said, “I think the worst here is not knowing exactly what to expect. I think we’re going to be OK. What we should hope for — and there ain’t nothing more to do right now but hope, ’cause we can’t change shit — we should hope that we got what it takes to be strong and that we are courageous in front of our men and that we have good judgment. That we just get it right, regardless of the consequences.” He turned to Dunn, “But as for who’s going die — since we don’t know — you want to flip a coin and see who might likely be first.”
We laughed, even Dunn, and lapsed back in silence.
As I sat there I could see clearly in my mind’s eye some of the skirmishes that I had read about in the dispatches. I tried to imagine what I would do, what my platoon would do, if we were surrounded by drum-beating, whistle-blowing, Oriental fanatics crawling forward in the jungle. No air force, no artillery, no mortars — us and them in dense jungle at night. My stomach tightened and began to hurt. Don’t get in the fix in the first place, I thought. Think tough. Cover your ass. I was right to start with. We can will victory here. Tough is a state of mind. Stay tough. Keep thinking tough.”
Dunn was the first wounded from our group, hit by shrapnel from enemy incoming into our base camp at Phouc Vinh. He recovered from his wounds and stayed with the battalion.
Bob Dunn in the aid tent after being wounded. Purple Heart is on his chest
Me, Bob, George and Pete at the “A”company bar
And then on 15 January 1966, as we set out to clear the Cu Chi tunnel area, Pete, leading his platoon ahead of battalion, was hit in his right shoulder by an heavy caliber machine gun bullet. As he was being thrown back and down by the blow, he was hit in the same shoulder by a lesser caliber bullet.
The report I received back with battalion was that Pete was probably dead and as I was coordinating with Captain Wooley to move ahead to get to his unit, I was hit in the ass by a sniper who had just killed a couple of our men with a command detonated mine.
It was several days before I found out Pete was alive and being sent back to the state to convalesce.
When I was released from the 1st Division aid station with my butt stitched, I returned to battalion and at night Dunn, McCoy and I would talk.
“It is altogether a proposition of chance,” McCoy said.
“Remember when we were talking on the USS Mann about courage and presence of mind and that kind of shit. War for us grunts is none of that so much as it’s just pure luck. War — this war — has no heart, no rhyme or reason.”
We got drunk that night, toasting our men who died at Cu Chi and to Pete’s safe exit to the States. And to our everlasting hope that we were lucky which made more sense now than hoping for toughness.
Later, in our group, Pete stayed conspicuous by his absence… we were like a 3 wheel car until we realigned ourselves, George leading the way as we morphed into a tricycle.
During the weeks to come, as my wound continued to heal, I stayed in the base camp and occasionally helped at the battalion S-3 (operations section), manning the radios.
Someone had bought a chess set and McCoy and I would play a game most evenings when he was in the base camp.
Dunn would come over often and sit drinking a beer making small talk.
In February still convalescing from my wound, I went on R & R to Hong Kong.
On return, walking back into the base camp on 2 March I waved to Captain Woolley as I ducked into my tent to drop off my grip. I was on the way out to tell Woolley about my R&R when he came in.
“Jimmy,” he said, “McCoy was killed by a mine two days ago.”
I stood perfectly still. “No he wasn’t.”
“George was here at the base camp. He went out to do some maintenance in his minefield and something happened and a mine went off. He was killed instantly. There was nothing the medics could do.”
I was stunned. McCoy. Dead. Gone. I stood absolutely still — only my eyes blinked — sinking into shock, thinking about nothing at all.
Woolley left, and Dunn soon arrived. He sat down by the chess board where George and I had played so many games.
He didn’t say anything.
I lit a cigarette and sat down in a chair by him.
We sat the longest time without a word.
George’s death was constantly on my mind for days. I could not shake the sense of loss.
George’s own words were my consolation… that if we die in combat, we’re at peace. If others get upset, it’s their problem. Be that as it may, God damn the sad pain.
Last year Pete and I made a pilgrimage to Bob Dunn grave site. (See Rants and Yarns # 105) Bob died in 2011 from a host of medical problems. He had remained his hell raising, loud, funny, hit you square in the nose, self his whole rambunctious life.
Then mid-August this year Pete and I made a trip to Shereville, Indiana to visit George’s grave site. To pay our respects and say good-bye.
George had it right, mostly, about war. It’s just a mean mudder fucker. Without rhyme or reason. It changes who you are, and because of the lurking proximity of death, war expands life. And enhances friendships. The four of us thought a lot of one another. Were sadden to the depths of our soul by George’s loss. Then Bob’s.
It’s down to Pete and I now. All deep-feelings aside, I want to outlive that mudder just for bragging rights.
To the family of George McCoy and the country he served, he was a hell’va man.
Ever in Shereville, stop by and say hi.