The USS Laffey (DD-724) was laid down 28 June 1943 by Bath Iron Works Corp., Bath, Maine. She was launched 21 November; sponsored by Miss Beatrice F. Laffey, daughter of Medal of Honor recipient S1c Bartlett Laffey. Commissioned 8 February 1944, Cdr. F. Julian Becton as her first “Captain”.
After shakedown, the Laffey traveled the world in the war effort. She was off the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Off Cherbourg, France where an unexploded shell bounced off her hull above the waterline and did little damage. Rescuing a badly wounded Japanese pilot off the Philippines. Firing support in Leyete Gulf and Ormoc Bay. Transported intelligence to McArthur in the Philippines. Supported landings at Mindoro and Luzon, Iwo Jima, and Kerama Retto.
That is where this story begins.
Commander Frederick Julian Becton, Captain of the destroyer USS Laffey (DD 724), took the radio message his communications officer handed him on April 12, 1945, but the concerned look on the young officer’s face made Becton suspect that it was not good news. Laffey, an Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer, had been screening the heavy fleet units that were bombarding Okinawa in close support of the ground forces ashore. She was the second U.S. destroyer to bear the name Laffey; the first ship had been lost off Guadalcanal in 1942.
Shortly after dawn on April 13, Becton brought his ship into the crowded harbor at Kerama Retto. Many of the ships anchored there had been battered by kamikazes while on radar picket duty. Although Laffey’s crew had encountered suicide bombers at Leyte, Mindoro, Luzon and Iwo Jima, they had never before seen so many damaged ships in one place. The crewmen began to imagine what might happen to them when they went out to their assigned picket station. Morale was low, and it only got worse when they received news that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died the day before.
As soon as Laffey tied up alongside Cassin Young, the fighter-director team of two officers and three enlisted men reported aboard, carrying with them special electronic gear. Three hundred rounds of 5-inch ammunition were also loaded aboard so that Laffey would sail with full magazines of all calibers. As Laffey prepared to depart, the skipper of Cassin Young offered some advice to Becton: ‘Keep moving and keep shooting. Steam as fast as you can and shoot as fast as you can.’
A gun captain from the destroyer Purdy, which was anchored nearby, also offered his thoughts about picket duty. Purdy had been struck by a kamikaze on April 12, killing 13 and wounding 270. He told the Laffey crewmen: ‘You guys have a fighting chance, but they’ll keep on coming till they get you. You’ll knock a lot of them down, and you’ll think you’re doing fine. But in the end there’ll be this one bastard with your name on his ticket.’ After all the horrific stories the crew had heard while in the anchorage, they were almost relieved when Laffey steamed north toward her assigned area, radar picket station No. 1.
On April 14, Laffey, accompanied by LCS 51 (landing craft, support) and LCS 116, arrived on station 51 miles north of Point Bolo on south-central Okinawa, which was used as a reference point in aligning the 16 picket sectors. Laffey relieved the destroyer-minelayer J. William Ditter (DM 31), whose skipper informed Becton by radio that during his time on station no kamikazes had entered the area, nor had any been detected by radar.
Becton hoped his ship would be as lucky, but at the same time he felt he should speak to his crew about the battle that was bound to come. He pressed the microphone button, and throughout the ship boomed the familiar words, ‘This is the captain speaking.’ Becton warned his crew not to expect the same kind of luck Ditter had had. He told them that he expected to see plenty of Japanese but that he had confidence in the crew’s ability. They had tangled with the enemy before and won. They were now going to make the Japanese wish they had never heard of USS Laffey. In conclusion, Becton said: ‘We’re going to outmaneuver and outshoot them. They are going to go down, but we aren’t.’
A short while later three bogeys appeared on the radar scope, but Laffey had no Combat Air Patrol (CAP) planes with her. Fifty miles to the east, however, there was a group of CAP planes with the destroyer Bryant (DD 665) on picket station No. 3. Becton requested their assistance, and the fighter-director team sent them toward the Japanese. All enemy planes were shot down. Not long after that, the radar operator reported eight more enemy aircraft approaching, and again Becton requested Bryant’s CAP planes. The fighter-director team vectored them in, and they destroyed all the aircraft. By the end of Laffey’s first day on picket duty, 11 planes had been shot down, but Laffey’s gunners had not yet fired a shot.
No enemy action occurred the next day, Sunday, April 15. The crew’s routine was broken only when Laffey was ordered to steam a few miles east to investigate a patrol plane’s report that a downed Japanese aircraft was in the water. The plane was found with its dead pilot still strapped in the cockpit. Laffey’s crew recovered an aircraft code book and other miscellaneous items that they would turn over to the intelligence section ashore, then sank the plane.
Monday morning began quietly on radar picket station No. 1. The whole crew was able to eat breakfast without any interruptions from the enemy. Then, at 8:25 a.m., the radar operator reported a solid cluster of pips too numerous to count approaching at 17,000 yards. It was a group of 165 kamikazes and 150 other enemy aircraft coming in fast from the north. The fighter-director team’s two officers requested more help from CAP. They were informed that fighters would be sent to intercept the huge onrushing formation, but it would take time for the CAP planes to arrive in the area. Meanwhile, Laffey and her two support craft would have to deal with the enemy on their own.
At 8:30, four Aichi D3A ‘Val’ dive bombers broke off from the oncoming group and headed for Laffey, which was steaming along at flank speed. Two came in from the bow and two from the stern in a coordinated attack. Becton ordered hard left rudder, bringing the destroyer broadside to the planes, and the two forward 5-inch guns downed two of the Vals at about 3,000 yards. The stern 5-inch gun shot down the third kamikaze, and the 20mm and 40mm mounts downed the fourth with an assist from the gunners on LCS 51.
There was no time to rejoice over that success, however, because two more attackers, Yokosuka D4Y ‘Judy’ dive bombers, were coming in fast – one from the starboard beam and one from the port beam. When the Judy on the starboard side got within range of the 20mm and 40mm guns, it was torn apart by converging fire and crashed into the sea. The gunners’ attention then shifted to port to assist with the second Judy, as it came in bobbing and weaving. The Japanese pilot strafed the ship, peppering the superstructure and wounding several men. The 20mm and 40mm guns finally downed the plane about 50 yards out, but just before hitting the water, the pilot released a bomb that sent shrapnel flying everywhere, wounding several more men and knocking others off their feet. The explosion also knocked out the SG radar, which was needed to detect low-flying aircraft.
The next attacker, another Val, came streaking in on the port beam. All three 5-inch guns opened fire, and as the plane came closer, the 20mm and 40mm mounts joined in. It looked as if the pilot was aiming to slam into the aft 5-inch gun, but he came in just a bit high and only grazed the top of it before smashing into the sea off the starboard side, killing one man in the gun crew. The eighth attacker, a Judy, came skimming in low over the water on the starboard beam. The 20mm and 40mm guns were hitting the plane, and finally, after a hit in the gas tank, the Judy burst into a fireball and crashed into the sea. Laffey’s crewmen felt as if they had been battling the enemy for hours, but it was only 8:42, just 12 minutes since the attacks had started.
There was a respite of about three minutes before the next attacker, another Val, came boring in off the port bow. The portside guns raked the plane, which shuddered and twisted but kept coming, even as gasoline poured from one wing tank. The pilot cleared the portside 20mm and 40mm mounts and crashed into the 20mm mounts amidships, killing three gunners before sliding into the sea. Flaming gasoline was everywhere, and black smoke engulfed the area. Two 40mm mounts were wrecked and out of operation, as were two 20mm mounts.
The ammunition racks around the gun tubs were filled with clips of shells, which were in danger of exploding due to the heat. Damage-control crewmen began to heave the clips over the side of the ship. Some of them were so hot that the men had to protect their hands with rags. As some of the ammunition exploded and blew holes in the deck, flaming gasoline poured into a magazine below. Fortunately, the ammo was packed in metal cans that resisted the heat until a damage-control party arrived and hosed down the containers, thereby avoiding disaster.
Communications were knocked out in the forward engine room, but that did not present a problem for the moment. The engineers decided to adjust the ship’s speed according to the sound of the gunfire they heard. If it was loud and fast, they would increase the speed. A more immediate problem was the smoke and fumes being sucked into the engine rooms by the ventilators. Machinist’s Mate John Michel, in the aft engine room, shut down the supply fans. The temperature soon reached 130 degrees and kept climbing as Michel worked his way through the dense smoke, located the controls for the exhaust fans and turned them on. The smoke began to clear and the temperature began to fall. Knowing that the smoke would undoubtedly attract more kamikazes, Becton reduced the ship’s speed to avoid fanning the flames.
Just as the crew was beginning to get the situation under control, two more kamikazes, both Vals, struck. One came in from astern low and fast, just a few feet above the water. The gunners of the three after 20mm mounts hit him with accurate fire, and parts of the plane broke off, but the pilot kept boring in. He plowed through the three mounts, killing the gun crews, and rammed into a 5-inch gun. The bomb he was carrying exploded, causing the plane to disintegrate and throwing gun captain Larry Delewski clear of danger. Fortunately, he was unhurt. Another man was blown overboard, but he was picked up by LCS 51, along with another crewman who had gone overboard earlier.
Flaming gasoline covered Laffey’s fantail and aft gun mount, sending more black smoke billowing into the air. The fires threatened a magazine below the mount, so firefighters flooded it, preventing an explosion that could have torn the ship apart. The situation was about to get worse, however, because the 11th kamikaze came crashing aboard at almost the same spot. That plane’s bomb wiped out the mount’s gun crew and wounded several others. The damage-control parties had no time to take a breather.
About two minutes later, another Val came gliding in from astern, probably because the guns were out of commission there. The pilot dropped his bomb and sped away. The bomb detonated on the stern just above Laffey’s propeller, severing the electrical cables and hydraulic lines that controlled the ship’s rudder mechanism. The rudder jammed at 26 degrees left, and the ship began to steam in a circle, still able to maintain speed but without control. Although crewmen began to work on it at once, their efforts were fruitless. The rudder was jammed tight and could not be moved.
The smoke and flames must have indicated to the attackers that Laffey was nearly done for, but they did not ease off. Two more planes came roaring in from the port quarter, and every gun that could be brought to bear on the attackers poured out a steady stream of flak, but to no avail. The first plane slammed into the aft deckhouse, exploding in a ball of fire. Seconds later, the other plane crashed into the ship in almost the same spot. Gasoline from both planes produced roaring fires that covered the whole aft part of the ship.
Machinist’s Mates George Logan and Stephen Waite, who had been battling fires in the aft living spaces, became trapped when the escape hatches buckled. They went to the emergency diesel generator room and secured the watertight door behind them. There was no light or ventilation and no way out, but there was a telephone that still worked, and they got through to the aft engine room. John Michel went to work again, this time with some help from Machinist’s Mate Buford Thompson. They chiseled a hole through the bulkhead and passed an air hose in to the trapped men. Meanwhile, Machinist’s Mates Art Hogan and Elton Peeler used cutting torches to make a hole in the deck and then pulled Logan and Waite to safety.
At the same time, a Nakajima Ki-43 ‘Oscar’ was streaking in from the port bow with a CAP Vought F4U Corsair on its tail. The port side 20mm and 40mm mounts were sending up a steady barrage while trying not to hit the Corsair. This Japanese pilot did not drop down and ram the bridge but zoomed up and over it, shearing off the port yardarm on Laffey’s mast, which came crashing down to the deck, taking the American flag with it. As the Corsair zoomed by, it hit the air-search radar antenna and knocked it to the deck below. After he cleared Laffey, the Japanese pilot lost altitude quickly and crashed into the sea, while the Corsair pilot managed to pull up and bail out before his plane hit the water farther away. Signalman Tom McCarthy saw Laffey’s colors fall to the deck and wasted no time in remedying the situation. He grabbed a new flag from the flag locker, shinnied up the mast and attached the new colors with a piece of line.
As he watched the Corsair chase the last attacker, Becton realized that his CAP planes, which had been spread thinly and even lured out of position at times, were now beginning to furnish some close support. That did not mean that Laffey was out of trouble, however. As if to prove the point, another Judy came in fast on the port beam, with a Corsair hot on its tail. The portside 20mm and 40mm mounts and the Corsair were hitting the Judy, which splashed into the water about 50 yards away from Laffey. Shrapnel from the Judy’s bomb severed all communications to Laffey’s two remaining 5-inch guns, as well as wounded the crews who were still working the hot 20mm and 40mm guns. Three gunner’s mates were also wounded.
Ensign Jim Townsley quickly jury-rigged a substitute system for communicating with the gun mounts. With a microphone strapped around his neck and plugged into the ship’s loudspeaker system, he climbed atop the pilothouse, from where he could see the onrushing attackers, and directed the gunfire from there. The 17th attacker was eliminated as he bore in from the starboard side. The plane took a direct hit from a manually trained 5-inch gun, with an assist from the 20mm and 40mm mounts.
Two more kamikazes, both Oscars, came streaking in, one from the starboard beam and one from the starboard bow. The attacker on the starboard beam was hit with a 5-inch round head-on in the propeller and engine and blew apart. Mount captain Warren Walker shouted: ‘We got the SOB! What a beautiful sight!’ Meanwhile, another gun had the other attacker in its sights as the plane came diving in. Even though the electrical controls were out and the gun was being operated manually, it took only two rounds to finish off the attacker. As the plane exploded, the gun’s trainer, Andy Stash, yelled excitedly: ‘We got him! We got him! Did you see that bastard explode?’
In the brief lull that followed, assistant communications officer Lieutenant Frank Manson arrived on the bridge to report to the skipper. When Mason finished talking, he hesitated a bit and then added: ‘Captain, we’re in pretty bad shape aft. Do you think we’ll have to abandon ship?’ Becton quickly replied: ‘Hell no, Frank. We still have guns that can shoot. I’ll never abandon ship as long as a gun will fire.’ Relieved, the Lieutenant went back to his duties.
The battle was not over yet. The 20th attacker, another Val, came gliding in from dead astern. Both the sun and the thick smoke helped to conceal the plane from the gunners. The pilot dropped his bomb, blasting an 8-by-10-foot hole in the already battered fantail. As he passed low over the length of the ship, he clipped off the starboard yardarm. He didn’t get far; a Corsair seemed to come out of nowhere to shoot him down several hundred yards off the starboard bow. Shrapnel from the bomb hit the emergency sick bay that the ship’s medical officer, Lieutenant Matt Darnell, had set up topside. Fragments severed the tips of two of the doctor’s fingers. Bandaging the bloody stumps, he calmly asked the astonished pharmacist’s mate who was assisting him, ‘Who’s next?’
The 21st attacker, another Val, strafed the ship as it came in off the starboard bow, aiming straight for the bridge. Seaman Feline Salcido, the bridge lookout, did not think that the captain saw the plane coming. He put his hand on the back of Becton’s neck and shouted, ‘Down, captain, down!’ As they both crouched low, a violent explosion rocked the bridge. The plane had dropped a bomb, killing one 20mm gun crew and wounding members of another nearby crew. That Val did not get away either; a Corsair pounced on him and finished him off.
The last plane was a Judy, which strafed Laffey as it came in from the port side. Although the port 20mm and 40mm guns put out a steady stream of fire, the attacker kept getting closer. Just when it seemed that the gunners were goners, a Corsair came roaring in with all guns blazing and blew up the Judy in midair.
By the end of the 22nd attack, the situation aboard Laffey was critical. The fires still raged, the stern was down due to flooded aft compartments, many guns no longer functioned and the rudder was still jammed at 26 degrees. Amid all the confusion and noise, Becton heard what sounded like many planes diving at once. Laffey could not absorb any more punishment. Sonarman Charlie Bell, Becton’s telephone talker, provided him with the encouraging news he so desperately needed. ‘Captain, look what’s up there,’ he said, pointing skyward. The weary skipper looked up to see 24 CAP Marine Corsairs and Navy Grumman F6F Hellcats just arriving to lend a hand to the few planes already on station. The Japanese had had enough and were hightailing it out of the area with the CAP planes in hot pursuit.
Laffey’s crewmen could not contain their jubilation. Shouts of ‘Get the bastards! Rip ’em up! Nail ’em!’ rose above the din of the receding battle. It was finally over, and the grim toll was staggering: 80 minutes of continuous air attack, 22 separate attacks, six kamikazes crashed into the ship and four bomb hits. But Laffey’s gunners had shot down nine attackers. The ship’s casualties totaled 32 dead and 71 wounded. Amazingly, eight guns were still able to fire. LCS 51 came alongside to help fight the fires, but the little vessel had also been hit and could only offer limited help.
The destroyer-minesweeper Macomb took Laffey in tow and headed for the Kerama Retto anchorage shortly after noon. The tugs Pakana (ATF 108) and Tawakoni (ATF 114) were dispatched to bring in Laffey. Using pumps, they got the flooding under control aboard the badly damaged ship. The jammed rudder caused towing problems, but it was still possible to maintain a forward speed of 4 knots.
At 6:14 the following morning, April 17, Laffey entered the harbor at Kerama Retto. Men gazed in amazement at the battered newcomer. It just did not seem possible that a ship could have taken so much punishment and survived; one kamikaze hit was often enough to sink a ship. Laffey’s escorts on radar picket station No. 1 had also suffered during the agonizing ordeal. LCS 51 had a 7-foot hole in her port side amidships, and three of her sailors had been wounded. LCS 116 had suffered topside damage, along with 17 dead and 12 wounded.
Shortly after sunrise, when Laffey was safely at anchor, the crew went aboard the tug Tawakoni for breakfast, their first real meal in almost 24 hours. Later that morning, a chaplain came aboard to conduct services for those killed or missing in action.
By April 22, six days after her ordeal on the picket line, Laffey had undergone enough repairs to depart for Saipan. At Saipan more repair work was performed, especially on the battered fantail. Laffey’s next stop was Pearl Harbor, where the crew was warmly welcomed and entertained while the ship underwent further patching to ensure its safe passage back to the West Coast.
On Friday, May 25, 1945, Laffey moored at Pier 48 in Seattle, WA. 39 days after her fight for survival on radar picket station No. 1. Before additional repairs were begun, the battered ship was thrown open for viewing by the public.
Some naval officials believed that defense workers had been easing off in their production efforts since V-E Day on May 8, and they had been searching for a way to remind everyone that the war was far from over. After seeing Laffey’s condition, everyone got the message loud and clear.
For her outstanding performance on the picket line, Laffey was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. Eighteen members of her crew received Bronze Stars, six received Silver Stars, two received Navy Crosses and one received the Navy Commendation Medal.
The Ex-USS Laffey can be toured at Patriot’s Point in Mount Pleasant, SC. For more information, click here: https://www.patriotspoint.org/
This article was written by Dale P. Harper and originally appeared in the March 1998 issue of World War II magazine.
View the Military service of singer:
PFC Freddy Fender (Baldemar Huerta)
US Marine Corps
View his service shadow box on TogetherWeServed.com
Short Bio: Best remembered for his hits “Wasted Days & Wasted Nights” Fender (born Baldemar Huerta) at 16, he joined the Marines for a three year hitch. After his discharge, he started playing Texas honky tonks and dance halls. Two of his first records, Spanish versions of Elvis’ “Don’t Be Cruel” and Harry Belafonte’s “Jamaica Farewell” on Falcon Records went to Number One in Mexico and South America in 1957.
By LtCol Mike Christy
Knight is excitingly portrayed by actor Matthew McConaughey. His first wife, Serena, is played by Keri Russell and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as his Negro wife Rachel. Several photographs from the movie appear in this presentation.
Newton Knight was born in November 1837, near the Leaf River in Jones County, Mississippi, a region romantically described in 1841 by the historian J.F.H. Claiborne as a “land of milk and honey.” The landscape was dominated by virgin longleaf pines. Wolves and panthers still roamed the land. He married Serena Turner in 1858, and the two established a small farm just across the county line in Jasper County.
Knight, an American farmer, soldier and southern Unionist, was best known as the leader of the Knight Company, a band of Confederate army deserters that turned against the Confederacy during the Civil War. Local legends state that Knight and his men attempted to form the “Free State of Jones” in the area around Jones County, Mississippi, at the height of the war, though the exact nature of the Knight Company’s opposition to the Confederate government is disputed. After the war, Knight aided Mississippi’s Reconstruction government.
Knight has long been a controversial figure. Historians and descendants disagree over his motives and actions, with some arguing he was a noble and pious individual who refused to fight for a cause in which he did not believe, while others have portrayed him as a manipulative outlaw. This controversy was fueled in part by Knight’s postwar marriage to a freed slave, which effectively established a small mixed-race community in southeastern Mississippi. The marriage would have been considered illegal as Mississippi banned interracial marriages except from 1870 to 1880 during the Reconstruction era.
Newton was a grandson of John “Jackie” Knight (1773-1861), one of Jones County’s largest slaveholders. Newton’s father, Albert (1799-1862), however, did not own any slaves, and was the only child of Jackie Knight who did not inherit any slaves. Newton, likewise, did not own any slaves. Some say he was morally opposed to the institution due to his Primitive Baptist beliefs. As a staunch Primitive Baptist, Newton also forswore alcohol, unlike his father and grandfather. He was probably taught to read and write by his mother.
Knight, like many Jones Countians, was opposed to secession. The county elected John H. Powell, the “cooperation” (anti-secession) candidate, to represent them at Mississippi’s secession convention in January 1861. Powell voted against secession on the first ballot, but under pressure, switched his vote on the second ballot, joining the majority in voting to secede from the Union. In an interview many years later, Knight suggested many Jones Countians, unaware of how few options they had, felt betrayed by Powell.
Knight enlisted in the Confederate Army in July, 1861. He was given a furlough in January 1862, however, to return home and tend to his ailing father. In May 1862, Knight, along with a number of friends and neighbors, enlisted in Company F of the 7th Battalion, as they preferred to serve together in the same company, rather than with strangers.
Throughout the summer and fall of 1862, a number of factors prompted desertions by Jones Countians serving in the Confederate Army. One factor was the lack of food and supplies in the aftermath of the Siege of Corinth. Another involved reports of poor conditions back home, as small farms deteriorated from neglect. Knight was enraged when he received word that Confederate authorities had seized his family’s horse. However, many believe Knight’s principal reason for desertion was his outrage over the Confederate government’s passing of the Twenty Negro Law. This act allowed wealthy plantation owners to avoid military service if they owned twenty slaves or more. An additional family member was exempted from service for each additional twenty slaves owned. Knight had also received word that his brother-in-law, Morgan, who had become the head of the family in Knight’s absence, was abusing Knight’s children. Morgan’s identity has since been lost, but he is thought to be Morgan Lines, a day laborer and convicted murderer.
Knight was reported AWOL in October 1862. He later defended his desertion, arguing, “If they had a right to conscript me when I didn’t want to fight the Union, I had a right to quit when I got ready.” After returning home having deserted in the retreat following the defeat at Corinth, Knight, according to relatives, shot and killed Morgan.
In early 1863, Knight was arrested and jailed, and possibly tortured, by Confederate authorities for desertion. His homestead and farm were destroyed, leaving his family destitute.
As the ranks of deserters swelled in the aftermath of the Siege of Vicksburg, Confederate authorities began receiving reports that deserters in the Jones County area were looting and burning houses. A local quartermaster, Capt. W. J. Bryant, reported that “The deserters have overrun and taken possession of the country, in many cases exiling the good and loyal citizens or shooting them in cold blood on their own door-sills.”
Gen. Braxton Bragg dispatched Maj. Amos McLemore to Jones County to investigate and round up deserters and stragglers. On October 5, 1863, McLemore was shot and killed in the Ellisville home of Amos Deason, and Knight was believed to have pulled the trigger.
On October 13, 1863, the Knight Company, as it was called, a band of guerillas from Jones County and the adjacent counties of Jasper, Covington, Perry and Smith, was organized to protect the area from Confederate authorities. Knight was elected “Captain” of the company, which included many of his relatives and neighbors. The company’s main hideout, known as “Devils Den,” was located along the Leaf River at the Jones-Covington county line. Local women and slaves provided food and other aid to the men. Women blew cattle horns to signal the approach of Confederate authorities. From late 1863 to early 1865, the Knight Company allegedly fought fourteen skirmishes with Confederate forces. One skirmish took place on December 23, 1863, at the home of Sally Parker, a Knight Company supporter, leaving one Confederate soldier dead and two badly wounded.
During this same period, Knight led a raid into Paulding, where he and his men captured five wagonloads of corn, which they distributed among the local population. The company harassed Confederate officials, with numerous tax collectors, conscript officers, and other officials being reported killed in early 1864. In March 1864, the Jones County court clerk notified the governor that guerillas had made tax collections in the county all but impossible. A letter dated February 13, 1864 from a Union scout addressed to Maj. Gen. John M. Palmer of the Union Army was discovered in 2016 by a historian working in the National Archives. It estimates the Knight Company’s numbers to be as high as 600 and confirms their intention to join up with the Union Army. The exact number is still a matter of debate, in light of an interview Knight gave after the war stating, “There was about 125 of us, never any more.”
By the spring of 1864, the Confederate government in the county had been effectively overthrown. Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk wrote Confederate President Jefferson Davis on March 21, 1864, describing the conditions in Jones County. Polk stated that the band of deserters were “in open rebellion, defiant at the outset, proclaiming themselves âSouthern Yankees,’ and resolved to resist by force of arms all efforts to capture them.” On March 29, 1864, Confederate Capt. Wirt Thomson wrote James Seddon, Confederate Secretary of War, claiming the Knight Company had captured Ellisville and raised the U.S. flag over the courthouse in Jones County. He further reported, “The country is entirely at their mercy.” Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman received a letter from a local group declaring its independence from the Confederacy. In July 1864, the Natchez Courier reported that Jones County had seceded from the Confederacy.
Gen. Polk initially responded to the actions of the Knight Company by sending a contingent under Col. Henry Maury into the area in February 1864. Maury reported he had cleared the area, but noted the deserters had threatened to obtain “Yankee aid” and return. Shortly afterward, Polk dispatched a veteran contingent of soldiers led by Col. Robert Lowry, a future governor who would later describe Knight as an “ignorant and uneducated man.” Using bloodhounds to track down guerillas in the swamps, Lowry rounded up and executed ten members of the Knight Company, including Newton’s cousins, Benjamin Franklin Knight and Sil Coleman. Newton Knight, however, evaded capture. He later stated his company had unsuccessfully attempted to break through Confederate lines to join the Union Army.
By April 1865 the Confederate rebellion had been crushed and the American Civil War was finally over. Mississippi was occupied by Federal troops sent to maintain order and to protect the civil rights of former slaves. Capt. Newton Knight was called into service by the United States Army as a commissioner in charge of distributing thousands of pounds of food to the poor and starving people in the Jones County area. Knight also led a raid that liberated several children who were still being held in slavery in a nearby county. Like many Southern Unionists, he supported the Republican Party, namely the Reconstruction administration of Governor Adelbert Ames. As conflict mounted between white neo-Confederate resistance (the Ku Klux Klan) and the Republican Reconstruction government, Ames appointed Knight as Colonel of the First Infantry Regiment of Jasper County, an otherwise all black regiment defending against Klan activity.
In 1870, Knight petitioned the federal government for compensation for several members of the Knight Company, including the ten who had been executed by Lowry in 1864. He provided sworn statements from several individuals attesting to his loyalty to the Union, including a local judge and a state senate candidate. But the federal Court of Claims ruled that “the evidence fails to support the allegation of the petition that the Jones County Scouts were organized for military service in behalf of United States or that they were in sentiment and feeling throughout the war loyal to the Government of the United States.”
At great personal danger, Knight became a strong supporter of the Republican Party. In 1872, he was appointed as a deputy U.S. Marshal for the Southern District to help maintain the fragile democracy.
In the statewide elections of 1875, however, violence and election fraud kept most blacks and Republicans from voting. Democratic candidates committed to “white rule” were swept into office. White terrorists shot out the windows of the Governor’s Mansion to intimidate Republican Gov. Adelbert Ames, Ames pleaded for federal troops to help keep order, but President Ulysses S. Grant refused. Ames tried organizing a state militia to protect the voting process. But the tide had already turned against Republican rule in Mississippi, and Ames was forced to resign. He lamented that blacks “are to be returned to a condition of serfdom – an era of second slavery.” Blacks could not vote freely in Mississippi again for nearly 100 years.
By the mid-1870s, Knight had separated from his wife, Serena, and married Rachel, a woman formerly enslaved by his grandfather. During the same period, Knight’s son, Mat, married Rachel’s daughter, Fannie, and Knight’s daughter, Molly, married Rachel’s son, Jeff. Newton and Rachel Knight had several children before her death in 1889. Newton Knight died on February 16, 1922 at the age of 84. Under the Mississippi Constitution of 1890, it was a crime for whites and blacks to be buried in the same cemetery. Yet even in death, Knight was defiant. He left careful instructions for his funeral and was buried on a high ridge overlooking his old farmstead in a simple pine box beside Rachel, who had died in 1889. The inscription on his tombstone reads, “He Lived for Others.”
Much has been written about Newton Knight-some pro, others con, a few balanced. In 1935, Knight’s son, Thomas Jefferson “Tom” Knight, published a book about his father, “The Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight.” Tom Knight portrayed his father as a Civil War – era Robin Hood who refused to fight for a cause with which he did not agree. The book noticeably omits Newton Knight’s post-war marriage to Rachel.
The 1942 James H. Street novel, “Tap Roots,” is loosely based on the Knight Company’s actions. Though the book is a work of fiction, the novel’s protagonist, Hoab Dabney, was inspired by Newton Knight. The book was the basis of the 1948 film, “Tap Roots,” which was directed by George Marshall, and starred Van Heflin and Susan Hayward.
In 1951, Knight’s grandniece, Ethel Knight, published “The Echo of the Black Horn,” a scathing denunciation of Knight and the Knight Company. Dedicating the book to the Confederate veterans of Jones County, Ethel Knight portrayed Newton as a backward, ignorant, murderous traitor. She argued that most members of the Knight Company were not Unionists, but had been manipulated by Knight into joining his cause.
In 2003, historian Victoria Bynum’s book “The Free State of Jones” was published by the University of North Carolina Press. This book provides a broader view of the Knight Company, taking into account the economic, religious and genealogical factors that helped shape the views of Civil War-era residents of the Jones County area. Bynum provides numerous examples of Knight stating his pro-Union sentiments after the war, and notes the influence of the staunchly pro-Union Collins family, many of whom were members of the Knight Company. She also brings to light the many women and slaves who provided assistance to Knight and his men.
In 2009, Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer published “The State of Jones,” which elaborates on Knight’s pro-Union sympathies and presents evidence that his views on race played a significant role in his actions during and after the war.
View the military history of President:
Capt Ronald Reagan
US Air Force
View his service history on TogetherWeServed.com: http://airforce.togetherweserved.com/profile/102085
Short Bio: Upon the request of the Army Air Forces (AAF), he applied for a transfer from the Cavalry to the AAF on 15 May 1942; the transfer was approved on 9 June 1942. He was assigned to AAF Public Relations and subsequently to the 1st Motion Picture Unit in Culver City, California. Reagan was promoted to First Lieutenant on 14 January 1943 and was sent to the Provisional Task Force Show Unit of This Is The Army at Burbank, California. Following this duty, he returned to the 1st Motion Picture Unit, and on 22 July 1943 was promoted to Captain.
Read the service reflections of U.S. Army Soldier:
SP 4 Tom Hirst
Shadow Box: http://army.togetherweserved.com/bio/Tom.Hirst
(Veterans, if you would like to share your story and leave a lasting legacy of your time in the service, join us at http://togetherweserved.com
PLEASE DESCRIBE WHO OR WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE ARMY?
After graduating from high school in 1967, I did what my parents wanted me to do: Stay in school. So I went on to college for one year and maintained my II-S student deferment. I left college and took a job at the local Dodge dealership in Washington D.C. My life was work and fast cars, a girlfriend and spending most every weekend at the local drag strips. Life was good! The realities of the “my world” were measured in a quarter mile at a time. Not that I wasn’t aware of the escalation of the Vietnam War. I watched footage of it on the evening news but I didn’t really pay too much attention. It never occurred to me that I might be in those news reels myself someday. I guess I was a little naive about what was happening in the “real world” and what losing my student deferment would really mean.
I got my first reality check in December 1968, when I received word that one of my high school friends had been killed in Vietnam. Nolan Byrd had been “In-Country” for a short time when he was killed in a fire fight. Nolan became a “Medic, which was unusually for a couple of reasons. At my high school, everyone was trained to be a Medic. We even had a pseudo military organization called the Medical Cadet Corps. Also, because of our religious beliefs and family upbringing, we considered ourselves “Consciences Objectors” (COs). All us guys knew we might eventually be called upon to fulfill our military obligation but because we were assigned a draft rating of IA-O, we knew it would be in a noncombatant position.
Returning home from work during the first week of August 1969, I found a letter in my mailbox from the Selective Service System. Printed at the top of the letter were the words ‘ORDER TO REPORT FOR INDUCTION.’ The body of the letter began with the word “Greetings…” As it turned out, this was the last draft call before the lottery system took effect. My induction was postponed until October 1, 1969 because of my job, but they got me after all. If I had been fortunate enough to skate by for two more months, I would not have been drafted. My lottery number was 322.
WHETHER YOU WERE IN THE SERVICE FOR SEVERAL YEARS OR AS A CAREER, PLEASE DESCRIBE THE DIRECTION OR PATH YOU TOOK.
I don’t know think “career path” applies to me as I was a two-year draftee and a conscientious objector with limited possibilities. As it turns out and what I had already figured, the only MOS for me was Medic 91A10 . I was sent to Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas to attend a 10-week Combat Medic Course.
One night in early December 1969, a sergeant with a clip board greeted us outside the mess hall one evening and said, “Listen Up! If your last name falls between the letter “A” through “M”, you are going to Vietnam!” My “career path” just got a little clearer. Of the 150-200 medics in training at Ft. Sam. half of us went to ‘Nam and the others went to Germany.
As the plane descended into Bien Hoa AFB in the early morning hours of March 5, 1970, I wondered where I was going to end up. As we taxied to the terminal, the stewardess’ attitude changed from “Fly the friendly skies” to “In the case of a rocket attack……” When we boarded a bus taking me to my next adventure, I was starting to realize that things could get a little hairy. I asked the soldier next to me, who was on his second tour, if it was this hot all the time and what the metal screen was for over the bus windows was for? He looked at me and said, “Well, FNG, this here heat is cool ’cause it still early. The ass kicking heat begins a little before noon and lasts until nightfall. Now that mesh there, it’s to keep grenades from being thrown into the bus!” I rode silently for the rest of the bus ride.
I was dropped off at the First Team Academy which I found out was the “Orientation Center” for the First Cavalry Division. Up until this time, I didn’t actually know where I had been assigned or where I was going. After a few days there, I watched as some of my fellow Medics were sent to their respective duty stations. I figured that they must be saving a really good assignment for me.
A couple of days later I got my assignment and took my first helicopter ride to a place called “Song Be” where I was to report to the 12th Cavalry Regiment’s Battalion Aid Station. It was hot when we took off but as we climbed higher, cool air blew through the open side doors. It was a refreshing surprise. Below the countryside was becoming more rural, some farms but mostly rice paddies and green jungle as far as the eye could see. But mostly my attention was on the two gunners on each side of the helicopter. Both looked to be seasoned warriors ready to immediately swing their M60 machine guns into action. That’s when the realization hit me: I was heading into a real war where people are trying to kill each other.
Arriving at the Aid Station, I spent a few days handing out pills at Sick Call. This wouldn’t be too bad. It was more like a dispensary with no badly wounded to take care or bed pans to empty. A week went by and finally I was told that I was going to replace one of the field medics in the 3rd Platoon of Charlie Company 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment. More reality set in when they offered me a .45 caliber pistol and said, “You might need this!” and that I would probably spend the next 6 months with an infantry company in “the bush.” I thought about the impending journey and opted for an M-16, rationalizing it would be a much better “patient protector” than a .45 caliber pistol.
Landing Zone (LZ) Snuffy was at the end of my next chopper ride. Wasn’t much there other than mud, sandbags, bunkers and 105mm artillery pieces. I was told that “log day” (resupply) was the next day and it was time for me to get ready to meet Charlie Company’s third platoon already in the field. There seemed to be a lot of excitement that day since the company had been in “contact” that morning and there was one KIA and one WIA. When the chopper landed, I jumped off as a “body bag” was loaded on. One hell of a way to spend Easter Sunday!
For the next 7.5 months, my career path would be humping the jungles and hard packed, slick trails with 75 pounds on my back.
DID YOU PARTICIPATE IN COMBAT OPERATIONS? IF SO, COULD YOU DESCRIBE THOSE WHICH WERE SIGNIFICANT TO YOU?
When I flew out to join Charlie Company for the first time, I’d been told we may be landing in a “hot LZ,” meaning there had been a firefight in the area earlier. The LZ itself was small, just big enough for one helicopter and surrounded with thick jungle on all sides. When it set down, I jumped off and Ken Garski, the soldier that had been killed, was placed inside and the helicopter took off.
That evening as we set up our NDP (night defensive position), I found out what an “ARC Light” felt like when 500 pound bombs dropped by B52s thousands of feet overhead exploded a few clicks (kilometers) from our position, shaking the earth like a 6-point earthquake.
For the next few weeks Charlie Company conducted “search and destroy” missions along the Cambodia border. I spent most of my time treating minor injuries and jungle rot as well as dispenses anti-malaria pills. In fact, malaria was so bad, the company had to report to battalion every morning that all men had been seen taking their pills. I also had my first Medevac when Greg Egan got a bad reaction to a bee sting.
After I had been with 3rd platoon for about a month, we were called back to Fire Support Base (FSB) Buttons near the village of Song Be for a “secret mission.” We were issued a lot of replacements and new equipment, some we normally didn’t carry such as handheld M-72 LAW (Light Anti-Tank Weapons) and 90mm Recoilless Rifles. On the minds of all of us was, where are we going? We found out that night.
The next day, May 5, 1970, we made a combat assault into Cambodia where we spent the better part of the next two months before returning to Vietnam June 29, 1970. It didn’t take too long to find the enemy. We had many encounters with Vietcong and North Vietnamese Regulars during this operation. [See VIETNAM MAGAZINE, AUG 2010 issue]
One night, as we sat in our NDP, we saw flashlights and the sound of a small group speaking Vietnamese coming toward us. What they didn’t know is we had put out a number of automatic ambushes (AA) along the trails leading into our NDP. Automatic ambushes were claymores daisy chained together by electricity that would go off when a trip wire was engaged. Anyone caught in the killing zone would be a goner. We heard one explosion go off. A few minutes later, another went off. We heard moaning for a few hours and then a single gunshot. In the morning we found 9 NVA bodies, one who had killed himself with his rifle by his pulling the trigger with his toe. We also found one wounded who had survived the blast. He was put on a helicopter but we heard later he too had died.
We found many bunker complexes of significant size during our patrols. As odd as it may seem, while the NVA higher command knew we had invaded their sanctuary , many field units didn’t know we were in the area. On one patrol we walked right up on soldiers playing cards after dinner. The platoon sniper started the firefight by doing his job and the rest of us chimed in to help. We called air support and the Cobras showed up and did their work for the rest of the day. The next day we returned to recon the area. It was a huge complex and we were only platoon size. There was a brief firefight before the few enemy withdrew. We were lucky that the rest of the NVA were not at home that day.
For a month and a half, we had suffered a few minor wounds but no deaths while eliminating dozens enemy. But our luck changed on June 14th.
While following a very well-used trail with signs of recent movement, we ran into the proverbial “hornet’s nest.” First Platoon was on point and my 3rd Platoon was on drag. Second platoon was in the middle. Moving slowly and looking in all directions, the point element spotted NVA in the processes of setting up a hasty ambush. They signaled their sighting and then let loose with their M-16’s on full automatic. The enemy fired back with everything they had and because they were in bunkers and semi-set up, they had the advantage. The first platoon and my platoons moved against the bunkers under heavy fire. Second platoon became the center of our hastily drawn perimeter. Within a few minutes, we suffered our first casualty while in Cambodia. Sgt. Mickey Wright was killed and Tom “TJ” Johnson was badly wounded. Making things worse we were in an area that hampered our radio contact with any support elements. Eventually with the heroics of one of the forward observers, Spec. 4 Tom Thon, who held the radio up over his head while hiding behind a tree, we were able to get air and fire support. We found numerous blood trails and the next day found 10 freshly dug graves.
The next morning we evacuate Mickey’s body and stayed in the same LZ for a resupply. As food and ammunition was coming in, we heard a loud explosion coming from the bunker complex were we had the firefight the day before. We figured it was the automatic ambushes our company commander, Capt. Michael Christy, wanted left in place until after we were resupplied. When we checked it out, we found three dead enemy; one was carrying an RPG with many rounds and other two carrying AK-47s with hundreds of rounds ammunition. They ‘d plan to hurt us bad but never got the chance.
Our tour in Cambodia turned out to be pretty devastating for the enemy. We found many caches with tons of rice, 55 gallon drums of gasoline that were destroyed and a large motor pool with 25 trucks. Drawing from my old “drag racing” days and tinkering with cars in general, I was able to “hot wire” many of the trucks and jeeps that we found. Using the captured trucks, we loaded up all of the usable supplies that we found in that “motor pool cache.” Tires, tools, bicycles, spare parts and even a diesel powered arc welder were “convoyed” back to LZ Evans with the 1/9th Pink Teams flying “cover” for us and telling us which way to go. At LZ Evans the equipment was airlifted back to the rear area in Bien Hoa. Chinooks with deuce and half’s underneath them made for a pretty strange picture! The unserviceable trucks we destroyed. We keep two trucks to carry our heavy packs marking Charlie Company a kind of a quasi-mechanized unit. It only lasted a couple of day until we got back into thicker jungle but those two days were like heaven.
On June 28th we were told that we had to be back in Vietnam by noon on the 29th, the next day. Although Nixon’s “incursion” was to end June 30, he had ordered us out one day earlier. We had a pretty good distance to travel but in the open fields of Cambodia, the “humping” was easy. Midway between the river we were to cross into Vietnam, a dozen print and television journalists were flown in to accompany us the rest of the way out of Cambodia. It seemed we were the last rifle company to leave Cambodia. With movie cameras and note pads in hand, they interviewed people from their own hometown areas and we got our 15 minutes of fame.
We made it out by the deadline only to be caught up in another unfortunate circumstance later that night. In the early morning hours of June 30, 1970, three mortar rounds from our own fire base smashed into our perimeter. The intent was to fire at suspected enemy positions. Only two of the rounds exploded, but those two rounds killed Denny Dentino and Michael Waters and wounded more than 25 others from our company. Forty decades later we are all still trying to come to grips with that tragic incident.
OF ALL YOUR DUTY STATIONS OR ASSIGNMENTS, WHICH ONE DO YOU HAVE FONDEST MEMORIES OF AND WHY? WHICH ONE WAS YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
According to my DD Form 214, I spent 13 months and 5 days in ‘Nam which was my only duty station other than basic training and AIT. After my 7 months “in the bush” with Charlie Company’s 3rd platoon, I got a really “cushy job” as the Colonel’s driver at the Division Surgeon’s Office, 15th Medical Battalion at Phouc Vinh.
I was truly a R.E.M.F.! Every day I “broke starch” and wore jungle boots shined by mama-san and every night, I went to sleep in a bed. I also had a 24 hour dispatch on the Colonel’s jeep! After I drove the Colonel to the Tactical Operation Center (TOC) around 6:45 am each day, I was off for the rest of the day unless somebody needed a jeep to go do an inspection or to the PX or just take a ride around Phouc Vinh on a “photo op”. [See my profile photo section for scenes around Phouc Vinh and Song be and many “BUSH” pictures]
One day the Colonel said he wanted to go to Vung Tau and do some in country R&R. He added that he would like to have the jeep down there as well. The Colonel took one of our choppers and flew down while I grabbed one of the other guys from 15th Med and a couple of M-16s along with the .45 caliber “grease gun” that I brought back from Cambodia and drove down to Vung Tau from Phouc Vinh. This was a distance of 150 miles or so. Everybody thought I was NUTS! A single jeep with two people all the way down through Bien Hoa/ Long Binh to Vung Tau and back. No big deal. Maybe that R.E.M.F. mentality of invincibility had actually taken effect.
FROM YOUR ENTIRE SERVICE CAREER WHAT PARTICULAR MEMORY STANDS OUT?
Sadly, the things that made the biggest impression on me were the men killed in my company. The things that I saw being a combat medic were pretty horrific. I suppose it can be rationalized that combat deaths are inevitable in war, but the stupid mistakes that kill and wound people, like “friendly fire” is an OXYMORON!
The company was supposed to be airlifted by Chinook for an in-country R&R in Bien Hoa once we arrived at FSB Thor. Unfortunately for us, there were not enough helicopters available that afternoon. This forced us into an NDP outside FSB Thor until the next day. During that night of 29/30 June, our mortar platoon, “E” Company 1/12th, fired mortar rounds at a “suspected enemy” trying to get back across the border into Cambodia. Three rounds fell short of the objective and landed directly on top of Charlie Company’s NDP, killing two and wounding twenty five. This horrible incident is the one memory that stands out the most and it is the one that can never be erased from my memory.
A better memory stems from the recent visit to the Vietnam Memorial where Danny Long, Al Wall, Keith Forry and Mickey Wright’s little sister Anita Rosenberg and her husband joined us in honoring our fallen brothers. “Operation Wall to Wall” was originally spawned one day when I realized that I still had four T-Shirts that were not “claimed” after the reunion in Myrtle Beach. I figured these are the T-Shirts I that would have been worn by Mickey Wright, Denny Dentino, Michael Waters and David Osborne.
Unfortunately these were the four brothers in arms that were killed while I was with Charlie Company. Using the T-Shirts as the back drop in a shadow box worked out well.
Danny Long made DVD’s of photographs that plays a slide show with music. Name plates were donated by the local trophy company and Vietnam magazine donated copies of the August 2010 issue that we put in the back of the shadow box. Each soldier’s medal board from The Wall was also printed out and placed in the shadowbox. It was my first trip to The Wall and it felt pretty good. I tried to visit the Moving Wall back in the 80’s when it came to town, but I couldn’t finish the visit. I got as far as the directory for panel numbers but could not make it down to The Wall itself.
Two more donated T-Shirts made up shadow boxes for Larry Downs and Ken Garski. All total, we left six shadow boxes to honor Charlie Company Brothers. I also left tributes to two high school and college friends who died in Vietnam. Both were medics: Nolan Byrd and Jay T. Diller.
IF YOU RECEIVED ANY MEDALS FOR VALOR OR AWARDS FOR SIGNIFICANT ACHIEVEMENT, PLEASE DESCRIBE HOW THESE WERE EARNED.
The other two Medics, “Doc” [Steve] Willey and “Doc” [Larry] Stansberry and me were all awarded the Army Commendation Medal for our actions on June 30, 1970. We had dead and wounded troopers all over the place. It was a pretty hectic/chaotic morning. I guess this medal is the most important to me. I realize that it is below the Bronze Star that I received, but I think it is the most important one in my collection. My Combat Medics Badge ranks right up there as well.
OF ALL THE MEDALS, AWARDS, QUALIFICATION BADGES OR DEVICE YOU RECEIVED, PLEASE DESCRIBE THE ONE(S) MOST MEANINGFUL TO YOU AND WHY?
Of the awards I received, my Combat Medics Badge is one of my more prized possessions. It is the single greatest recognition for all combat medics. It tell the world that I served as a combat medic while serving the infantryman “out in the bush.”
The other medal that I was presented was the Army Commendation Medal with Valor device for the not so “friendly fire incident” on 30 June 1970. Our head medic, “Doc Johnson” was severely wounded by the mortar rounds that hit us. This left us one medic short to treat all of the wounded and we did the best we could. Captain Christy nominated the three remaining medics, “Doc Willey”, “Doc Stansberry, and me, to honor our efforts that early morning. I think if you ask the other two “Doc’s”, they would have the same response.
WHICH INDIVIDUAL(S) FROM YOUR TIME IN THE MILITARY STAND OUT AS HAVING THE MOST POSITIVE IMPACT ON YOU AND WHY?
To say any “ONE” individual had the biggest influence on me would be negating my respect for all of the people that helped me during these days. My first day, 3rd platoon RTO (Radio Operator) Gene Tetzlaff took me under his wing and helped the “FNG” get squared away.
As I became more aware of my surroundings, I realized just how lucky I had been being assigned to a very competent bunch of INDIAN FIGHTERS! Capt. Michael Christy led Charlie Company; 1st Lt. Rick Friedrich was my platoon leader in 3rd platoon (photo is Lt. Rick on left and me)and other enlisted NCO’s like “Pappy” and “Oz” kept us all inline.
The simple fact that I AM HERE to report on the days that I spent with Charlie Company is what makes the biggest impact on me!
CAN YOU RECOUNT A PARTICULAR INCIDENT FROM YOUR SERVICE WHICH MAY OR MAY NOT HAVE BEEN FUNNY AT THE TIME, BUT STILL MAKES YOU LAUGH?
We lived in miserably hot, humid weather most of the time and because we were out humping the jungle 30-days at a time, we went weeks without bathing. That’s why I spent a lot of time dealing with hygiene problems. And the two most common problems were ringworm and crotch rot, both made worse by a lack of clean clothes.
The subject of ringworm came up at our 40th reunion in Myrtle Beach 2010. Jim Wilson, one of the guys in my platoon came up to me and said, “Doc, I think about you every time my ass itches!” That made me laugh and reminded me of the antifungal medication treatment I used on ringworm that the guys called “liquid fire.” It never seemed to fail that Jim or somebody else would show up for “treatment” just when I was ready to eat my dinner. Thinking about it now, I did take some perverse pleasure in watching them run around the NDP wanting to shout out just how much this stuff burned, but they COULDN’T MAKE ANY NOISE for fear it might be heard by the enemy.
WHAT PROFESSION DID YOU FOLLOW AFTER YOUR MILITARY SERVICE AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW? IF YOU ARE CURRENTLY SERVING, WHAT IS YOUR PRESENT OCCUPATIONAL SPECIALTY?
After Nam, I went back to the Chrysler/Plymouth Dealership in Washington D.C. before I got drafted. Things in the “postwar era” were pretty dull considering where I had spent the previous year or so. I worked for a year and then decided to quit working and take advantage of the GI Bill. Seven to eight years later, having exhausted the government dole, I opened my own auto repair business. During this time period, I discovered the marine industry.
Using my mechanical abilities to repair boats seemed like more fun than working on greasy old cars. Besides, people that owned boats were more “appreciative” than people that only owned cars. During this time period, I worked for Zodiac of North America in a support role for the Government Sales Division. In 1980, we developed the “prototype” of the F470 Assault boat which the SEALS and Rangers still use today. You probably have seen the ARMY STRONG commercial where they drive the inflatable boat up into the back of the hovering Chinook and take off….this is the boat that I got to develop and play with. I spent time with the Army Rangers at Eglin AFB, Florida and the Navy Seals at Norfolk Naval Base, Virginia and the Forward Air Control at Pope AFB in the middle of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. All these guys are pretty crazy!
After my move to Florida in 1984, I went back to the “civilian” boating business where I still work in today. I have worked with all of the marine manufacturers from Johnson/Evinrude to Volvo. Currently, I am still working in the marine industry with the Cummins/Mercury/Suzuki companies. I run the parts department here at the Cummins Dealership in St. Petersburg, Florida.
WHAT MILITARY ASSOCIATIONS ARE YOU A MEMBER OF, IF ANY? WHAT SPECIFIC BENEFITS DO YOU DERIVE FROM YOUR MEMBERSHIPS?
I joined the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) because I think that this is the best forum for people of our time period. I enjoy their newsletters every month and like reading how other people were affected by their tour of duty.
IN WHAT WAYS HAS SERVING IN THE MILITARY INFLUENCED THE WAY YOU HAVE APPROACHED YOUR LIFE AND YOUR CAREER?
I am convinced the biggest impact the military had on my life was that it “cut the apron strings” and made me survive on my own. It also opened my eyes to all the possibilities that exists for those who spend a couple of years within a disciplined structure where following the rules creates good order. It also makes a person grow in self-esteem, giving them the confidence to take risks in order to achieve great results. Frankly, I think a couple of years of mandatory military/civil service would work wonders for today’s youth. It may also reveal a talent they didn’t know they had.
If nothing else, a couple of years in the military makes a person grow tenfold over most entry-level civilian jobs.
BASED ON YOUR OWN EXPERIENCES, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO THOSE WHO HAVE RECENTLY JOINED THE ARMY?
For the active duty folks, I advise them to learn their jobs and the job of the person above them. I also recommend that you consider your time in the military as a valuable learning experience on how to get along with others who have nothing or very little in common with yourself. It’s a skill you can use in your community and in your chosen work field. It will also keep you out of trouble.
I also have some advice for those who got out of military service recently or for old guys like me: Take advantage of the GI Bill, especially the college benefits. I did and I am forever grateful. However, there was one huge benefit I ignored for years: The many program offered by the VA. I just didn’t realize or didn’t want to accept how things I experienced in Vietnam affected me emotionally and physically. Not wanting to come to grips with this reality intensified as the years crept up. A few years ago I finally enrolled in the VA and now use it on a regular basis. My advice to you? Don’t wait like I did.
Fortunately for me, I had developed a skill I could return to in the automobile business where I was employed before I was drafted. Hopefully you active duty types and veterans acquired a skill set that can be employed in today’s work place. If not, use the tools at the VA and get some specialized training in a field that interests you. There’s nothing wrong with working with your hands building or repairing something. This ability is fast becoming a “lost art” in America today.
IN WHAT WAYS HAS TOGETHERWESERVED.COM HELPED YOU REMEMBER YOUR MILITARY SERVICE AND THE FRIENDS YOU SERVED WITH.
Seventeen of my company met at Myrtle Beach for our 40th reunion. I had not seen 16 of them since I left ‘Nam. I even found out one of them from my platoon, Danny Long, live within an hour of my home. I discovered Danny and I had the same email provider which led to our reunion after 38-39 years. (Danny is second row, last person of left. I am just below him in green shirt.)
ATWS also helped us locate many of the other members of Charlie Company that attended the reunion. Danny and I also made a trip to the Vietnam Memorial where we were joined by Al Wall, Keith Forry and the adopted “little sister” of Charlie Company Anita Wright-Rosenberg, sister of Mickey Wright who was KIA in Cambodia.
Hear Tom tell his story in his own words:
View the service history of Game Show Host:
LTJG Bob Barker
Shadow box: http://navy.togetherweserved.com/profile/464680
Short Bio: Barker was born in Darrington, WA, and spent most of his youth on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where his mother was a schoolteacher. His family eventually moved to Springfield, Missouri, where he attended high school and Drury College on a basketball scholarship. World War II interrupted his studies and he joined the US Navy, becoming a fighter pilot, but the war ended before he was assigned to a seagoing squadron.
SSgt Air National Guard 1981-1987
My uncle had been stationed at (NKP) Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Navy Base and he was tasked to take over as Supervisor of Airlift at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in light of the increased tempo of the airlift operations and the possibility of Saigon being overrun by the North Vietnamese Army. He personally facilitated the flight out for the President of South Vietnam and his family. We also learned my Uncle had been awarded a medal for his work there. Among other things he ran onto a bombed and burning aircraft, under fire, to make sure everyone got out safely.
On April 29th 1975, a C-130E [#72-1297], flown by a crew from the 776th Tactical Airlift Squadron, was destroyed by a 122 mm rocket while taxiing to pick up refugees after offloading a BLU-82 at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Col. Michler ran into the burning C-130 helping the crew to evacuate the aircraft and then directed them to depart the airfield on another C-130 that had previously landed. This was the last USAF fixed-wing aircraft to leave Tan Son Nhut, prompting Col. Michler to convey to the Seventh Air Force and Ambassador Martin that the airport was unusable, thus triggering the final phase of the evacuation of Saigon known as “Operation Frequent Wind”.
The following is an excerpt from an article in which the author (Lt. Col. John L. Hilgenberg) while describing events, quotes part of my Uncle’s reporting that describes ending operations at the Airport and highlights the actions of one of his officers.
(From USAF Southeast Asia Monograph Series Vol. IV Monograph 6 Last Flight from Saigon …page 80)
A second rocket hit about 100 yards away across from the Dodge City billeting, injuring two evacuees sleeping on the grass. These two were treated by the Army medics and one civilian doctor working in the gym dispensary. Another hit across the road in the Air America parking area, destroying several aircraft contemplated for use in the evacuation. Maj. Dellegatti of the SOA, who was enroute back to Tiger Ops, had spoken briefly to the Marine guards only five seconds before the impact killed them. These two were the only known U.S. citizens killed on Vietnamese soil during the entire evacuation. Two Marine helicopter pilots perished in a helicopter ditching at sea.
The latter was Dr. Jim Mayers from Hawaii who originally came into Vietnam to assist in evacuating orphans, then stayed on to help in the big evacuation. He was the only doctor readily available in the EPC and performed in outstanding fashion. Several of the pictures in the back were taken by Dr. Mayers and given to the Air Force for historical purposes.
From 0430 till the final lift-off the next morning more than 24 hours later, a multitude of things happened, many of them simultaneously. A chronological organization will be used hereafter. The rockets and what sounded like heavy artillery continued throughout the day with the greatest concentration of 40 rounds per hour between 0430 and 0800. Following the initial barrage, which seemed to hit indiscriminately in and around the Tan Son Nhut area, the rocket fire became more and more concentrated on the flight line and fuel and ammo storage areas. In fact, after about 0430, no one remembered any more rockets hitting the Defense Attache Office Compound or Annex.
In the EPC, our first action was to get the crowds down and under cover, yet to remain organized in groups for rapid movement. Not surprisingly, the VN’s knew exactly what to do to protect themselves from the rockets, but once the attack subsided, they grew progressively more difficult to control. Here is where the USAF Security Police and several assigned Marines were invaluable. As I observed throughout the evacuation, reaffirmed later in the day, an American in uniform was a powerful, reassuring control force, much more effective than an American in Civilian clothes, even one who could speak the language of the evacuees.
On the flight line near Tiger Ops, the Supervisor of Airlift group and members of the Combat Control Team began investigating and reporting on the condition of the airfield. This action was extremely hazardous as rocket impacts were now concentrated there. Col. Earl Michler, USAF, was serving as Supervisor of Airlift at Flying Tiger Operations on the flight line when the rocket attack started and directed initial reporting. He described the action of one man in particular, Capt. Bill O’Brien, USAF, on temporary duty to Saigon from the Clark AB Aerial Port:
“When the bad guys started shooting at us, Bill was least impressed–that is to say it was obvious he had been there before. Whenever we needed to know the status of the airfield, runways, taxiways, etc., it was always “Obie” who went out to check. There were several times when leaving the doubtful sanctuary of a building was not easy, but he went, usually without my asking. If we had a decision to make about whether or not to continue operations, he just accepted the fact that we needed to check, put on his hat and did it. During those final hours, Bill was, with the radios in his jeep, our only real contact with what was happening on the flight line. He was right in the middle of the chaotic mess and stayed there calmly reporting conditions until I ordered him out.
When I finally told Bill to get out, all hope of continuing airlift was gone and he was under fire not only from rockets and artillery, but was surrounded by the wild, uncontrolled melee on the ramp – Vietnamese were running around looking for a reason to shoot someone. Bill came out very slowly, moved all the way over to the tower to pick up one of his enlisted types in place there, then back to Flying Tiger Ops to meet with the rest of our people.