On Going To War

On Going To War

by: john harrison

Several of my former students at Bishop O’Connell High School have asked me about serving in the military. In particular the ones that are soon to be commissioned, but also some now already in the service want to know more about my experience with  leading men in combat who in many cases are much older than they are, and are certainly much more experienced than they are. Understandably, the ones headed to Iraq or Afghanistan are always very concerned about how they will react to combat, to battle. This is what I have told them.

I was commissioned at 20 years old. My Platoon Sergeant, Jim Bunn, was 34 at the time. Not only did he have many years of experience in the Army, he had already been to Vietnam. How then do you become the “leader” of such men?

It gets worse, while I had completed a year and a half of college. One of the men in my platoon, a Specialist 4, had two masters degrees. While that is not as likely in today’s all volunteer Army, you will still constantly have people serving under you who are smarter than you are, and who know more about what they are doing than you do. How do you deal with that and remain the leader?

What I had was years of study of military history and even more important I had Officer Candidate School or OCS. I was also very lucky in the men around me, both above me and below, and in the Army’s system of command. One of the things that you will realize very quickly as a junior officer is that in spite of ignorance in some areas, there are still many things that you know that no one else in the platoon knows no matter what their experience or age. More important, you are their platoon leader, and this makes all the difference. 

While it is the real job of a platoon sergeant to train his platoon leader without the platoon leader knowing, that does not mean he knows everything. The platoon sergeant may never have actually called in an airstrike, or artillery, or dust-off. He may know a lot about how to make C-Rations (MRE’s ancestor) palatable in the field, or how to motivate young men, but he may never have had a chance to research a subject overnight sufficient to give a good class on it the next day and about lots of other things that a platoon leader must be able to do.

There are all sorts of parts to the job of being a good platoon leader. At first there are some you will be good at and some you will suck at. However, it is still without question, the all-time, best job I have ever had, 2nd Lieutenant, Infantry, Platoon Leader.

You are expected to make mistakes, but your men, and in particular your platoon sergeant want you to be good at your job. They want to laugh at the other guy’s lieutenant, not their lieutenant. In a good platoon they will help you, they will also try to hide your mistakes from those above, and you will make a lot of mistakes. If you listen, particularly to your platoon sergeant, they will help you to act correctly, but the decisions and the responsibility for those decisions will always be yours.

I was very lucky. My first battalion commander, Col. John P. Geraci, was good enough to be recently enshrined in the Ranger Hall of Fame, my first First Sergeant, MSg Theron “Bull” Gergen was already a celebrity in the world of Rangers when I met him and was one of the first enshrined there. Cap. Thomas Gaffney was my first CO, but it was his second war. I had competence and hard won experience all around me. As I said my Platoon Sergeant, Jim Bunn had only recently returned from Vietnam when he joined the platoon. You may have to search for it, but real experience is available if you look.

However, you still need to be careful because some people seem to feel feel that they are building themselves up when they are tearing others down.  While only a moron would believe that this is true, or useful, these people exist in every service. They are the beetles of doubt. Avoid them. 

Hazing for example does not prove you are tough, it proves that you are undisciplined.  Any officer or NCO that lets himself or the men under his command be hazed should be fired, plain and simple.  If I saw it. I would relieve the officer or NCO on the spot, and so would any competent officer.  Why, because hazing has nothing to do with making people better. It has everything to do with allowing some people to feel superior by abusing their authority.  Those kinds of people should not have authority.

Multiple tours proves nothing.  Assuming they are trained, the best soldiers in history were generally pretty good the first time they fought and got better thereafter.  But, everyone has a limit, too.  If you go to war often enough, you will be killed, and over time when men recognize this, it changes them. In any event what did they do during those tours? What happened during those tours? What did they experience, besides just being there?

Even participation in a big battle prove nothing.  As far as the individual infantryman is concerned, a big battle is when they individually have to fight as hard as they can to stay alive.  A squad can undergo as much or more in a single squad action as they would in a big battle that perhaps makes the history books, or the evening news.  In any event, a squad in a big battle might be pulling the shit burning detail the whole time.  While they would know a lot about burning shit, their actual knowledge of battle would be limited. What did they do in that battle? How is it relevant now?

That said, everyone needs to be shot at the first time and they are different thereafter because then they are a veteran.  They know something about them self that others do not know about themselves. When I say shot at, I mean exactly that, not riding around in a truck when a bomb goes off, or sitting in a bunker at a base camp under attack, but out in the field in a combat infantry platoon, or tank squadron fighting an enemy that is trying to kill you, and that is pretty good at it. Then you are a real combat veteran. It is your reaction to the enemy fire that is important, not so much the fire itself. 

The stuff I have read about actions Iraq and Afghanistan, leads me to believe that very few of those who have served in these regions are actually what I would call “combat veterans”.  But, that was also true of Vietnam and every other American war.  There were less than 60,000 trigger pullers in Vietnam when there were over 550,000 troops there.  Probably about 90% of the jobs are still held by REMFs. 

We need the people in the rear, so while I have pulled their chain, I am not really deprecating them, but they are not infantry/tanker/artillery veterans no matter what their MOS.  No matter how many tours they served unless it was in a unit that actually fought the enemy they are not combat veterans. It is doing an infantryman’s job under fire, not just being under fire, that is important.

Anyone in the military who has not been in actual combat wonders how they will react when the bullets fly.  Unfortunately, there is only one way to find out.  Generally after the first jitters are over the problem is not a lack of courage, but actually an excess of bravery.  It needs to be tempered.  Green troops often take too many risks and thereby suffer too many casualties. 

One of the things I was always proud of was that while my platoon suffered a lot of casualties, they were spread over multiple actions over several months.  We did not do stupid, we killed the right people and in general did not allow them to kill us. 

In a sense combat is very much like basketball in that it is a team sport.  Anybody not working on building the team, making the team better has no place in the military.  Anybody who is putting down a fellow soldier, rather than sharing hard earned experience probably has little real experience to share and is not a real soldier however many tours they may have.

It is not how many doors did they kick down, but how many doors did they kick down that had an enemy inside with a machine gun pointed at the door. What did they do then? What did the man covering the entry do? Those are the real questions.

As far as how good is the Army of today, I do not know, but I would be very surprised if they are not better than in Vietnam and WW II if only because they are much better educated.   For example, less than half of the Marines in WW II had a high school degree now almost all do. Education does make a difference.

While being an “infantryman” is easy, being a good infantryman that can go upon today’s very lethal battlefields with a reasonable expectation of both accomplishing your mission and coming back is a rather more difficult proposition. It takes brains. It takes the ability to learn and apply skills that many times you do not even know you have. It takes courage, both the courage to act and the courage not to act even though you may know down deep in you soul that all you want in the world right then is to be able to do one thing, just one thing. However, you do not do that one thing, you do what you are supposed to do instead. When you have done that, you are a combat Infantryman.   

Being really good Infantry is a learned skill.  It is not easy. It is not simple.  It is not just issuing a guy a rifle and expecting them to know what they are doing.  There are a lot of little things that make the difference between living and dying. If you do not know those little things and do not do them almost as second nature then you are not very likely to survive. It is really that simple.

Audi Murphy, the most decorated soldier in World War II was a farm boy. As was Medal of Honor winning Sgt. Alvin York from World War I. In training, the Army only spends relatively a few hours on the rifle range and shoots relatively a few rounds. In the past America was famous for fielding armies of men that could shoot and shoot well. However, that was mostly because they brought that skill with them to the service.

My brother is a former Marine and an excellent pistol shot. He says that it takes about 5,000 rounds to make a really good pistol shot. It is not likely that you will have the opportunity to shoot that much in the military. In addition, today with the demonization of guns in America very few have had any experience with guns when they enter the service. You will not be getting a platoon full of Alvin Yorks and Audi Murphys. Most of them will not be able to shoot that well at first, and some may even be afraid of the weapon that they carry. That could get them, and you killed.

If you are going to teach other men how to shoot, you need to know yourself. Volunteer for range duty every chance you get. Hang out with people that know how to shoot. It may literally save your life and the lives of men in your platoon. Go to the range. Shoot. Listen. Learn. Practice. Shoot.

The next point is a little more difficult but no less important. While it is necessary to be able to hit a target, it is even more necessary to identify that target first. Both Murphy and York were boyhood hunters. You cannot buy that experience; you cannot even train it; you must experience it and that takes time. Make the time.

Whenever I walk outside to this day, I look for good machine-gun positions, good sniper positions. I look for places I would hide, or I would hide my platoon even though I have not led a platoon in 50 years. However, if you have ever been shot at in the military you will do it too, and you will do it for the rest of your life. Strangely, my wife Sandy, who has never hunted, sees far more than I do when we walk in the woods, so it is a talent as well as a craft that can be practiced. Either way, practice it. You will be surprised at what you see, at how much better you get.

I always felt that I was extraordinarily lucky in the Army.  My battalion trained together as a unit for 6 months before we deployed.  The battalion CO, Col. Geraci, was a Marine in World War II, an Army platoon leader in in Korea, and had already served two tours in Special Forces A teams in Vietnam before he was our commander.  My company commander, Cap. Gaffney, had earned a battlefield commission in Korea, was riffed back to sergeant, made Sergeant Major in Special Forces, served in “A” Teams in Vietnam, and then came back as a Captain to take us to Vietnam. I have already mentioned our First Sergeant, Bull Gergen and my Platoon Sergeant Jim Bunn. These were all men that you could learn from.

And when we were done training, I thought we could kick anybody’s ass which is probably why I once attacked a Mainforce VC battalion with my platoon. Kicked their asses too even though we could not destroy them. Too many to kill, although we and the United States Air Force did our level best all day one day trying to kill them all.

You are not really feeling inadequate if you feel doubt about your ability to fit in to this life.  You are feeling being untested, and you will feel that way until you are shot at doing your job.  It is an essential part of the job. And, while you are correct now that you are untested, after that you will be a veteran, a combat veteran.

I think that the most important thing that I could tell you is to be prepared to improvise. We spent almost all of our time training on how to patrol, on doing ambushes and counter ambush drills, and most of all on how to fight in the jungle. However, we spent almost all of our time actually fighting, doing it in the cities during Tet ‘68. The two have little in common.

Nobody in the battalion had ever done what the Army called then, Fighting In a Built-up Area. Nobody in the battalion was an expert at it when we first did it. I actually used more ideas that I got from watching Victory At Sea and other WW II documentaries as a kid than I did from my Army training. The one thing I learned is that if it works, it is not a stupid idea. In Vietnam we used to take our helmets off, hold them up and move them around for the enemy to shoot at so we could find out where they were hiding. It worked, because unlike us, they had not watched hours of cowboy shows and war movies. If it works, do it, then do it again.

As I said, the best job I have ever had in my life was that of being a second lieutenant, infantry, platoon leader. Best job by far. In that I envy you.  Good luck.


The story of our time in Vietnam during Tet where I learned the above can be found in my new book, Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive which is available on Amazon both as a paperback and on Kindle. Please give it a look. See; https://www.amazon.com/Steel-Rain-Tet-Offensive-1968/dp/1977045448/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1517494115&sr=1-1-catcorr


16 thoughts on “On Going To War

  1. Bill Johnson

    Great stuff, as expected from you. Insightful and honest. Your comment about the little things (“There are a lot of little things that make the difference between living and dying. If you do not know those little things and do not do them almost as second nature then you are not very likely to survive.”) rang true, and reminded me of the “welcoming” talk and demonstration delivered by our squad leader. He was a Cuban E6 who, as rumor had it, had been at the Bay of Pigs and for whom the USA had swapped a tractor. (If that rumor was true, we sure got a great deal for that tractor!) He delivered it to a group of us replacements when we arrived by Chinook at the company’s night location in the field. His teaching took all of about 30 minutes, but we all listened and watched. No one from that group is on The Wall – except for the instructor. SSG Enrique Fernandez-Leston was KIA on Jan. 7, 1968. He died after assuming the job of Point Man in a known hairy situation. His leadership, together with that of a crack OCS graduate, platoon leader 2nd Lt. Gene Lohmaier, saw us through some tough stuff with what I consider light casualties. I think you and Lt. Lohmaier are cut from the same bolt of cloth, or are at least each exemplary products of the same school. Lohmaier was a very good man to work for; I assume the same applies to you.

    BTW, I’m still trying to make contact with Gene Lohmaier. The Internet places him in Southern California, near San Diego, but my letters sent to his last known address go unanswered. I would appreciate the help of any of his OCS classmates who might happen to read this. See, I owe him my apology for the ass-chewing he probably got from our Company Commander for my dozing off while on radio watch one memorable night in Laos. I’ve asked that CO why he didn’t bring me up on charges for my dereliction of duty that night. His answer marks him for the outstanding commander he was: “I didn’t need to deal with you – I spoke to your platoon leader.” Ouch. Mea Culpa, LT!

    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      Well a lot of people will read this so they will see your comment. I hope you get in touch with your platoon leader. And, thanks for the kind words. A good leader can make all the difference, you were lucky.

      One of our platoon leaders was Alfredo Suarez, a Cuban refugee. We spoke Spanglish.

  2. althompson101

    Great thoughts Sir. In our writing reflections, I realized that I spent half of my 3 year military tour with the 3/506th.

    Untested and tested are operative words. I had leanings toward being a conscientious objecter (medic). I also didn’t know if I could be sufficiently brave to function well. The first firefights dispelled that uncertainty; it took a couple to season me.

    I truly believed marksmanship was great preventive medicine. Think you are also right on the unsound chances new guys can make. However, in all honesty, another war would have to come to me.

  3. Susan Koranek

    Reading your comments, John Harrison, about your interactions with your platoon sergeant and other people above and below your command reminds me of the prayer of St. Francis–the serenity prayer. “God grant me the serenity To accept the things I cannot change;
    Courage to change the things I can;And wisdom to know the difference.

  4. nordrof

    Thanks LT for the perspective .Your the only Platton leader I can remember ever having I know I must of had four or five others but I don’t remember a thing about them.I guess our time together was very memorable.I know that Cpt.Gaffney relied on you and second Platton a lot which tells me you and your men were the most competent in his eyes.Which was nice but did put us in harms way a little more often than other Plattons.Thanks job well done respect,Sgt Ford

    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      Thanks Ron. The reason you remember me is that you probably had to put up with me longer than the others.

      Yeah one of the many bad things about war is that it destroys the best first. We had over 80% casualties of the initial platoon, but never lost fighting cohesion. In the history of warfare that is incredible. You guys were incredible. You made me look good.

    2. Thomas Keating

      John, I just discovered your blog. I am a Vietnam Veteran, who served in country in 1969-1970, with the 1st Logistical Command. I was not in a combat role, but had 11B10 as my secondary MOS. I became an admin specialist because I was a “college boy” and the replacement center THAT DAY was looking for typists, and found me. I am forever grateful that I did not have to serve in a combat role. I have retired from my work as a television and Internet producer, and work with veterans in my home town. Keep up the blog.

      1. JohnEHarrison Post author

        Thanks for the comment. One of my fire team leaders had two masters degrees, I had a little over a year in college at the time. I think the comments are the best part of the blog. Many are from people that were there.

      2. Thomas Keating

        John,thanks for the reply. In 1969, it was a smart army due to the deferment for grad school being eliminated by the Selective Service. I served with lots of college grads at Ft Benning and of course, Vietnam.

  5. TJ Duffer

    Two greatest pieces of advice I received before going to Nam was from one of the senior training cadre> First, no amount of training, no amount of bravado, no amount of advice will ever prepare you for that first fire fight…you will hesitate. Recognize it and get over it, FAST.
    Second, come to grip with what death means to you, your own specifically and hold on to it. (for me, being Catholic I had a positive view of death and life after death). If you don’t know what death is, it was scare you and cause you to hesitate…and hesitating causes more causalities in combat.

  6. fred hoffman

    John-enjoyed your lecture on being a plt. leader-I arrived after you in march 69-black hawk was co-you guys really hurt the VC around PHAN THIET-KEEP ON WRITTING-MAY see you this summer-fred-3/506th 3rd plt leader I tookover inmarch 69 after nieswinder was killed


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