Category Archives: Infantry OCS

Close Quarters

Don’t know why I never read this Vietnam war novel until now. It came out in 1977 and is awfully good. M-113 personnel carriers used as assault vehicles, just what I would have blundered into had I dropped my OCS application when they closed Armor OCS and the Infantry at Benning was all that was left.

A dozen or so did drop and all but one (who was sent to Germany) of us drafted Armored Cavalry Scouts got sent to Nam with the 5th Mech or the 11th ACR. And probably wound up being drivers or TC’s like veteran author Larry Heinemann’s Flip Dosier, who became lean and mean like the story itself.

But despite a few incongruities (Armor guys didn’t qualify for CIBs, Larry) and way too much weed (satisfying the protesters who were sure we all did it all the time like they did) the plain-spoken story rings true. Read it, if you haven’t already.

Second of the third II

Here’s a mystery that could use solving.

My OCS friend Russ Wheat was wounded in both legs in Viet Nam and sent to Japan for treatment. Where OCS classmate Rick Wilson, who was posted with an Armor unit in South Korea, ran into him on a leave:

“We met in a bar in Japan where he was holding court with about 20 mesmerized by his continual line of jokes. It was a great time with him. As an aside he had to sit on a pile of pillows due to the wounds he had which he referred to as his magic carpet.”

Russ should have ridden his magic carpet home. Most wounded sent to Japan were. Two from my advisory team went home that way. Indeed, Rick was surprised when Russ got sent back to Vietnam to complete his tour as a platoon leader in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade. “I was surprised he returned to VN. I too thought he had his ticket home.”

When I asked Russ why he was sent back he raised his eyebrows and shoulder in a half shrug as if to say “Why, indeed?”

Could the major general who felt insulted by Russ at the briefing have been so vindictive as to send him back for more infantry despite his leg wounds?

High Plains drifter

Our old Army OCS friend Russ Wheat wanted to be buried in Higgins, Texas, on the High Plains, about 800 miles north of Canyon Lake where he spent his retirement years.

So, when he was discovered deceased at home alone by his pastor shortly before Xmas, a local funeral home drove him in his casket to Higgins. There was no autopsy, apparently because there was no sign of foul play and the sheriff learned that Russ was under the care of the VA hospital in San Antonio for multiple maladies, including prostate cancer. He was 81.

The executor of Russ’s estate returned his dozen or so stray dogs to the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation in nearby Kendalia where Russ was a benefactor. One dog was blind in one eye, one had three legs and some were mangy. Russ had shared his one bedroom home with some of them for almost twenty years.

Canyon Lake is a little town near San Antonio catering to retirees. Higgins, near Oklahoma, is a little town barely clinging to life, with a living population of about 400, according to a 2017 article in Texas Monthly. Russ, unmarried and apparently childless, is buried with his parents in the town cemetery, on one of the few hills on the prairie.

Barbara Ellen and I are planning to go in March. We’ll make it a leisurely trip of a few hundred miles a day to see the wildflowers, and Palo Duro Canyon, as well as my friend’s resting place: a High Plains drifter gone to ground at last.

The walking wounded

Steve Hamblin, a classmate in Infantry OCS, writes to the group after I posted the Second of the third:

“Still thinking about Wheat losing most of his platoon. My God that must have haunted him. There are no words. Vietnam is long over but there remain walking wounded among us and sometimes we learn too late who they are.”

Via OC-504-68 FtBenning at yahoo!.com

Second of the third

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.

Handsomest man in the Army

My friend Russ Wheat always said he was the handsomest man in the army. This goes a long way to proving it, mighty cleft chin and all.

Adios, Amigo

My old friend, Russell Huntley Wheat, was 81 and living with diabetes when he passed away shortly before Xmas. Can’t be more precise as his Methodist pastor found his body on a wellness visit the week of the 15th. Apparently there was a memorial service on the 20th but there’s no evidence of it on the Web.

Russ, who lived in Canyon Lake just down the road from the mini-rancho, was the funnyman in Infantry OCS, always telling a joke before class with the permission of the tactical officers who enjoyed them as much as the rest of us. We who strained to hear him in a class of a hundred candidates. Never dirty, just funny.

He was perversely proud of his Purple Heart, for which he had a license plate on his truck, from leg wounds suffered in his days with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in Viet Nam. He always sent a Hanukkah card and until recently a funky gift (army teeshirt, etc.) for Mr. Boy whom he had met when Mr. B was still eating in a high chair.

No more separating the Wheat from the chaff was my joke which I promised to tell at the end of our lives. And so it is.