Numbers Can Be Deceptive
by: john harrison
When I originally enlisted in the Army it was for Warrant Officer Flight School at Ft. Rucker, Alabama. While I had to complete the flight school to actually become a warrant officer, I was guaranteed on enlisting that was where I would be sent. The only question remaining the recruiter explained when I enlisted was whether I would pass the flight physical. If I did that, it was on to Ft. Rucker right after AIT (Advanced Individual Training) he said. That all sounded good to me.
So, I filled out all of the enlistment forms. There were two complete sets, one for entry into the Army and another set for entry into the Warrant Officer Flight Program. There was only one question on all the forms that I did not know the answer to, my social security number. However, the forms showed how many numbers there were so I just filled in the blanks and then turned the forms in.
As everybody knows who has been in the service, even before basic training, it all starts with taking a bunch of tests. It turned out I did well on the officer aptitude test, so they offered me the chance of going to OCS (Officer Candidate School) instead of Warrant Officer Flight School.
I had a long discussion with the second lieutenant who was recruiting men for OCS about this. Ultimately, according to him, the Army promised that if I flunked out of OCS that I would immediately be sent to flight school at Ft. Rucker. With that assurance, I signed up for Infantry OCS at Ft. Benning, Ga. Again I filled out a whole bunch of new forms, then I was on the way to Benning’s school for boys. Right before commissioning we filled out two sets of forms since in effect all of us were leaving the Army as enlisted men and then immediately rejoining the Army as newly commissioned officers.
I passed OCS and after Jump School was assigned to the 3/506 (Abn) Infantry Regiment with the 101st Airborne Division at Ft. Campbell, Ky. The Commanding Officer of the 3/506th was an old war-horse on his third war named John P. Geraci.
We trained for six hard months in the states and then deployed to Vietnam as a unit. Like everybody in the unit I felt we were very lucky. We had John Geraci, later inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame, as the battalion commander, Tom Gaffney, working on his second war and like Geraci this would be his third tour in Vietnam, as our company commander, and Master Sergeant Theron “Bull” Gergen, also inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame, as the company’s First Sergeant. All three were tough, knowledgable, demanding warriors who took no prisoners.
This is a picture of by then Col. Geraci after his helicopter had been shot down. He had landed in a hot LZ to pick up a wounded platoon leader. He earned that patch on his right shoulder leading us, the Currahees, 3/506th Airborne. The word tough defines the man.
In fact, Geraci relieved, Army speak for fired, one company commander and Gaffney relieved a platoon leader during training in the states. They both believed completely in the old adage that, sweat in training saved blood on the battlefield. We sweated a lot even before we got to Vietnam because for them, even really good excuses were never a sufficient reason for a failure to perform.
After a couple months in Vietnam we were on a resupply out in the field when I was told to come over to the single ship LZ (Landing Zone) in the center of the Alpha Company perimeter where I found Geraci and Gaffney waiting for me, not talking, looking very stern.
They sat there for a minute, both of them just looking at me. Then Gaffney passed me an inch thick sheaf of papers. You read Army documents from back to front so I turned immediately to the last page, then I had to turn forward four pages to where the first document in the stack began.
It was a memo from a full bird Colonel in St. Louis, directed by name to my commanding officer, Lt. Col. John P. Geraci, USA, Commanding Officer, 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry (Abn.) Regiment. The memo did not start well:
“This officer, and I use the term loosely. . .”
And, it went down hill fast from there. I soon figured out that not only had I used different Social Security numbers each time I had filled out a set of forms, I had also often varied the numbers within each set of forms. In total I had filled out at least six sets of forms: first set, Army enlistment, second set a Warrant Officer flight candidate, third set Officer Candidate, fourth set ending service as an enlisted man, fifth set beginning service as a commissioned officer and a finally, a shorter set for Jump School. The Colonel did not say how many different Social Security numbers I had used because I gathered he was still not sure of the exact number.
The Army had recently changed from keeping track of its soldiers by their service number to keeping track by their Social Security number. Apparently as long as the Army had kept track of things by service number, my little fictions had caused no problems. However, when the Army switched to Social Security numbers there were no end to the problems.
All of the numbers I had used turned out to be real Social Security numbers for somebody and many of them were, or had been, in the Army. At least one of them was in the Marines too, but the Colonel seemed not to be as worried about him.
Among other things, there was a large, brand new, computer on an Army base near St. Louis, Mo., that had suddenly spewed out all sorts of numbers and forms. According to the Colonel, at great cost of time and money, the computer had been shut down completely as each number was traced—back to me.
Among other problems, there was that Marine. He was drawing jump pay, but had never been to jump school and on being assigned to a Marine airborne position had objected even though he was getting more money, probably particularly when they told him he had to exit an aircraft in flight. The Colonel had also spent some time looking for a nonexistent 78-year-old second lieutenant who, according to the paper work, had been commissioned twice.
The Colonel’s memo went on and on. I finally stopped reading and started to go through the documents on top of the original memo. The first was from another Colonel, also Adjutant General Corps, who pointed out in some detail that wars are not just won on the battlefield, but also by keeping careful, accurate records. He only went on for two pages talking mostly about me, but he was also very definite.
Then, the documents travelled up through all of the various Army and Joint Commands to CONUS, or Continental Army United States from whence it went CINCPAC (Commander in Chief Pacific Area Command) then to USARPAC (United States Army Pacific) and on to MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam). It actually went a lot of other places as well, and each commander, or his designee, had added their endorsement to the memo. By the time it got to me it was about an inch thick.
It was hot on the LZ, but that was not the reason for all the sweat pouring out of my body. I was stunned, speechless.
I glanced up—Geraci and Gaffney were still sitting there, still looking at me, stone-faced.
Then, Geraci laughed, not just a “Ha, ha, ha. . .” but real belly laughs, and Tom Gaffney joined him. There were tears in their eyes when they finally stopped laughing.
A week later the battles of Tet’68 started. No one ever mentioned that memo again, and strangely, it never made it into my 201 File.