My friend Russell Wheat crossing a rice paddy on patrol west of Saigon sometime in 1968-69. A brave man doing his duty.
The leader of 3rd platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade was wounded in both legs and sent to Japan where he recovered and was sent back to the field to complete his tour. He was the lucky one.
How this 2nd Lieutenant of Military Intelligence got to be leading an infantry platoon is a story worthy of our famous funnyman. He told it to me and a few others at breakfast at our Infantry OCS class reunion in San Antonio in 2005. I took notes.
It seems that in late 1968, after graduating from OCS and completing MI Basic, he got a cushy job in G2, division intelligence, 1st Logistical Command, Long Binh, north of Saigon. Sometimes he was a briefer to generals and other visiting dignitaries. He was, of course, known for his humor.
Sometimes it edged towards the smart-ass. The culminating instance was a briefing for a major general and his orbiting entourage of colonels, majors and captains. 2Lt Wheat closed out the strategic and tactical briefing by enumerating some weapons recently captured. One was an AK-54, the machine gun version of the AK-47. But the general didn’t know what it was and he interrupted Wheat to ask about it.
Wheat was in a mood. Obviously. “Sir,” Wheat recalled saying, “the AK-54 is an AK-47 with seven years of service.”
Silence. The humorless general visibly ground his teeth. His face got redder when someone in the back laughed.
And thus our Wheat reported for duty to Bravo Company, 2nd of the 3rd of the 199th, which operated west of Saigon to the Cambodian border. He was assigned to 3rd platoon. I asked him once how many of his men were killed. He stiffened. “Not an inordinate number,” he replied.
Two years after the reunion, I ran across a Google link to a pdf of the Methodist Children’s Home, a Waco orphanage. There I found that Wheat was a frequent donor and in 2007 had donated several thousand dollars “in memory of thirty-seven men of 3rd Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry, killed in action in Viet Nam 1968-1969.”
In 2011, when I visited Israel for the first time, Wheat, a church-going Methodist whose father was a Methodist minister, asked me to place a prayer paper “memorializing” the 3rd Platoon in a crevice of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a Jewish tradition for two thousand years. I had an Israeli friend take a picture of me doing it and sent the picture to Wheat.
Maybe the thirty-seven are the reason Wheat, a native Texan and graduate of the University of Texas, made a post-war career at the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Marlin, south of Waco. He had failed at medical school before he was drafted. He retired directing a lab at the hospital.
He was found deceased shortly before Christmas by a Methodist pastor making a wellness visit to his home in Canyon Lake. He was 81.