Not only are heroes made-not-born, I’ll swear many of them are partial heroes by accident. Someone walking the rails snatches a meandering child from an onrushing train. Quick thinking, perhaps. Maybe reflex. But the act only seems heroic if there was a split-second involved, when the option of most people would be to watch dumbstruck. In fact, my own bar is much higher. Heroism would, to me, require a few extraordinary choices leading to the dangerous situation, near despair by any normal person, and one person’s rise to action in the face of clear and distinct peril.
On the battlefield we had a clear assessment of such situations: sweat sandwiches and shit sandwiches. (Guess which is the most perilous.) If a few people were shooting at you and you could manage to make them go away, or get out of the area where they were shooting at you, that would be called a sweat sandwich, a random situation that you could probably extricate yourself from with known methods and assistance at hand, such as digging a hole where bullets could go overhead, and having other people or planes or bigger guns to shoot back. The report of action over your radio would be “sweat sandwich developing. Need some rounds on them half a click NW of us.” A click, by the way, is 1000 meters and a tribute to the fact the US military joined the rest of the metric world mid-twentieth century, while US civilians, almost alone in the world — kept the bizarre old feet and inches based from yore on the length of some of the King’s physical appendages. A sweat sandwich, then, was dangerous, but probably survivable with high energy and competent use of your own weapons (and the assistance of friendly weapons whenever possible).
A shit sandwich, on the other hand, was dire. There were usually a lot more people shooting a lot more stuff at you from all around you. Shit sandwiches mean possibly survivable with all of the above sweat sandwich remedies plus sheer unadulterated luck of these kinds: (1) Deep mud between them and you, instead of between you and your route out, or (2) some more attractive alternative to killing you, like the adoring crowd of local prostitutes who suddenly distracts them from their absolute possession of all your exits, or, (3) just a few times, it was the crazy, unexpected, demonic energy of a guy like Cage. Cage was this Marine from West Virginia and he never made more than private because his temper was hair-trigger and applied equally to all. He’d learned to control it except in a few cases when we were being attacked and some advance of the Viet Cong had put us in a shit sandwich.
One of my lasting images was of 6-foot Cage standing silhouetted against explosions, over a previously unseen ravine which was now literally pouring attackers out onto our hilltop position, and there was Cage standing in the middle of it all, frustrated with how slowly his rifle dropped them, grabbing bodies and throwing the smaller Viet Cong attackers with their rifles and grenades, and tossing them like bad rubbish with one arm and then the other, back down the ravine, collapsing the attackers onto each other like dominos. Cage was legend among the troops of the battalion. Though he might not easily blend with polite society, he was at home with Marines in Viet Nam. You might say Cage specialized in shit sandwiches.
True, the situations in which heroism arises are usually random. You don’t set out in the morning to become a hero, by anyone’s definition. Most Marines I knew just tried to do their jobs, and to be as dependable as possible to each other because, when all rationales are done, all the men I saw and respected were basically doing their jobs for each other. You occasionally hear football players on successful teams say they are playing hard for each other. I subscribe to that, and as an officer there was another level: of being loyal to your men. To watching out for them. To make sure they had beer anytime beer was to be had. To defend them against the idiosyncrasies of the military bureaucracy tangled in the battlefield, where orders came from somewhere to go somewhere you would not go in your right mind, and to do with no supporting reason whatsoever. I’m saying that there are a lot of mistakes made when the air of uncertainty is the only air you breathe all day. On one coastal operation, I sat in on a conference between our battalion commander and the head of a Navy SEAL team. Apparently there were tunnels that went down from a peninsula we were taking and some of the Viet Cong were thought to be escaping via tunnels that opened underwater at high tide. Our battalion commander was in the process of ordering the SEALs, ranking far below him, to swim into those small dark tunnels with guns and grenades waiting and intercept the Viet Cong.
“Can’t really do that, sir,” said the SEAL Team leader, respectfully but resolutely.
“Well, by God, sailor, that’s an order.”
“Sorry, sir, we can’t manage that one.”
The battalion commander was flabbergasted. He knew the Seal was right. Of the few VC intercepted, none would be taken alive in the dark tunnels, and there was a high probability that many of these highly skilled undersea technicians would have their lives wasted for nothing.
“You can’t do your job? That’s your job, isn’t it.”
“Well, sir, we’re a little short for this sort of thing.”
What I had just heard was someone with no power in the system standing up for his team of men against someone with great power over him. The battalion commander mumbled something about how this was going to be reviewed with his Chief, but he already knew he would lose this one. It didn’t absolutely need to be done, and this low ranking head of Seal Team was not going to let his men — some about to go home and thus “short” (for short-timers) — walk into a dark, inescapable pit of butchery. This was a kind of career heroism, (with his career at high risk) and the men who saw this organizational courage from their leaders became incredibly dedicated followers. Of course there were no medals handed out for this type of heroism.
The supply of medals often seemed merely a matter of supply and demand. In the areas where the fighting was constant and deadly and where the smoke rarely cleared, there were occasional allotments of medals that sat around until some lull of a few days where everyone was basically tired of fighting. We fired at each other across deep gulleys and then one side started to file down the pointed tips of the 7.62 mm NATO rounds that everyone used. The VC used AK47s and could use the same rounds as ours (or a Winchester .306 round, if you must), so they could use captured ammo. The filed down round would mash out if it hit you and tear your shoulder off instead of going through it. No one liked the filed-down rounds so our Civil Affairs guy white-flagged into the gulley and both sides decided not to file down again unless the other did. That would be called an extempore Rule of Engagement.
And the pause got better. The VC disappeared into the populace with their local girlfriends and the Marines retired to secure cantonments for some beer and steaks which magically reappeared, sometimes before ammo resupply. A net was strung up and we played jungle volleyball, the loose rules of which allowed any kind of hitting of the ball with your hand and any type of grabbing, kicking, or tripping your opponents under the net. Depending on how much and what kind of action there was, a certain quota of medals seemed to appear. They seemed to want to write up bronze stars and a smaller portion of silver stars to motivate the troops. Often, of course, a person had rotated out when the approval came through. But there was often some maneuvering for the quota of medals, especially within Officer corps.
In one of those lulls I was tasked in my secondary occupational specialty as communications officer to go set up the optimal command post for a peninsula we were in the process of taking. I say in the process because as it turned out, the helicopter deposited me in an area I was told was secured, and as the blades flop-flopped away into the sky, I looked around and did not see a welcoming committee. Actually, after looking around a bit, I decided not to blurt out my position. Apparently we had not taken this area yet. How interesting. Now the question was: had anyone else taken it? Was I being watched from the bushes, a curious intruder into a peninsula full of enemies? I decided I’d better make my way back to the beach, and then perhaps find my battalion inland. I was in Indian Country, as we called any area we had not secured.
I was in Indian Country and it was too quiet. Either they missed my exit from the helicopter or, more likely, they were just watching me to see if there were more like me around. The best I could do is act like any action from them would cause stuff to rain down like hell on them. I pseudo-confidently made my way about half a mile to the beach. On the way, there was a 500 lb bomb crater courtesy of the Air Force, and in the bottom of it was a cow. Its rear end had been blown away, and it was lying there moaning. It looked at me with big brown eyes, almost pleading. I thought for a moment the best thing I could do in this world was to put the cow out of its misery with my .45, but I reached for it, and then thought better. Noise is not good. Maybe they were watching me or maybe not, but a blast from my .45 would change the game, and not in my favor any way I could guess.
If you can tiptoe in the jungle, I tiptoed back to the beach, and then worked my way down in the shadows of beachside trees until I heard an American voice. “Who goes there?”
Now that was a question. I tried to remember a radio code name for this flank of the operation. “Mystic Crystal Bravo!”
“Wrong” said a voice from a wall of sandbags. And then the helpful, “That was yesterday.”
“Hey, I was in DaNang yesterday,” I said.
“That you, Hon?” I recognized it as the voice of the Mustang S-3 operations officer who just happened to be walking the lines.
“Get over it, Hon.“ He was still behind the sandbag wall. Then I realized they all stayed down because the VC were probably right behind me. “What the hell were you doing in there?”
“Chopper dropped me in there…Setting up new command post.”
“Oh…too bad. We were planning to take those couple of clicks but something snarled. Guess the pilot didn’t hear.”
“Or me, sir.”
“Well, Hon, we better get you into a briefing now, because now a hell of a lot of people want to know what’s out there.”
The few staff officers a battalion had grilled me and then the Commanding Officer and the Executive Officer grilled me and they showed me maps (one of which had never been given to me) and I tried to point out where I’d been and what I’d seen, which was not much of anything but a cow.
One of the onlookers was Lieutenant MacDonald, who I knew but never did know what he did, and he pulled me aside after one grilling. “We’ve got three more silver stars for this operation. You should get one for reconnaissance behind enemy lines.”
“It was a mistake. We didn’t know it was Indian Country. I’m not that brave, believe me.”
“But you were there, and you got out with vital information.”
“Information that there didn’t seem to be anyone there?”
“That’s valuable. And the way you got through enemy territory, that’s heroic.”
“It’s a joke.” I said. “It’s a big screw up.”
“But they probably would give you the Silver Star. There’s a case for it.”
Sometimes these things flicker past your head for second. A Silver Star would set you up for life in the military: it would always be foremost in consideration for promotions and — as the experienced Marines did in a sort of conspicuous understatement — you could wear only personal combat decorations in a slim but telling line above your uniform shirt pocket. The thought flickered, and then I could imagine being laughed at. I could imagine laughing at myself. I didn’t want a military career anyway.
“Give it to Cage.” I said.
“You don’t want it?”
“Naw, give it to Cage. Give it to him while he’s alive. There’s not a soul who’ll disagree.”
I don’t know if Cage did get that Silver Star, but he should have. He was certainly the hero I would never be and besides, I’ve since felt a little more right with the world if I did dodge a phony Star that was possibly tossed at me.