There are more than 21 million veterans in the United States. Whether an individual served time as a clerk typist in a training brigade at Ft. Lewis, Washington, or was a commander of troops in the hottest war zone in one of our country’s recent wars, Veterans Day recognizes and honors the individual’s service to our country.
As U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina used to say, “Veterans are special because they have done something unique for our country.”
So it is on this day in November that each of us who has worn the uniform of one of our country’s armed services reminisces about his or her experiences while on active duty.
I served in the U. S. Army just shy of three years from 1966 to 1969, one year as an enlisted man and two years as a junior commissioned officer in the field artillery. Invariably on Veterans Day, my thoughts go back to my service in Vietnam, where I was the executive officer of Battery B, Second Battalion, Ninety Fourth Field Artillery, an eight-inch self-propelled howitzer firing battery. My job was over the firing battery and the fire direction center (FDC).
The artillery has few heroes. For most of the enlisted men in the firing battery, their jobs consisted of cleaning and servicing the howitzers every morning, performing maintenance on the vehicles and equipment and transporting in and offloading projectiles (“projos”), powder and fuses. There was usually a lull in the afternoons, a time when many people napped. Most, but not all, of the firing occurred at night. These many years later, I can still see them with their steel pots and rain jackets on as they fired round after thunderous round into the soft rainfall of a black monsoon night.
As with most TO&E outfits, the men were from everywhere, from Maine and New York to California, from Michigan and Ohio to Texas and Louisiana. They all did their jobs, looked forward to their week of R&R and then eventually rotated back to the states.
One individual stood out more than all the others, a tall lanky bespectacled corporal from a coal mining town in Tennessee whom the men of the battery called “Main Man.”
I don’t remember Main Man’s actual name. He exhibited a calm, quiet demeanor. I don’t know how far he went in school, for his grammar was poor, and I wondered if he read well. But when it came to being an artilleryman, he had few peers.
Main Man was the No. 2 man on the No. 2 howitzer. During a fire mission, the 204-pound projectile with the fuze screwed in would be hydraulically lifted from the ground onto the loading tray. It would then be hydraulically rammed into the base of the tube.
At this point, the No. 2 man would insert the powder charge into the firing chamber, close the heavy breech, insert the primer and attach the lanyard to the firing pin. Upon the fire command (“Standby! No. 2 fire!”), the No. 2 man would fire the weapon by pulling the lanyard with his arms and twisting his body. The tube would then be quickly lowered to loading elevation, and the No. 2 man would open the breech and swab it. The chief of section would then shout, “Shot! Bore clear on 2!”
During sustained firing, the best crews exhibited a rhythm in the firing procedure, and this was often set by the performance of the No. 2 man. The crew of the No. 2 howitzer performed like clock work. The other three crews were good, but they did not come up to par with the No. 2 crew.
Main Man inspired all who worked around him to do a better job. Twice during my tour, the corps artillery commander visited our battery.
“Red Leg Six is on his way to your location,” was the radio transmission announcing his visit. On both visits, the battery commander was gone, so I met and reported to the general at the helipad.
On each occasion after I had escorted him about the battery area, a fire mission came in, as I knew it would. The general had come to see the howitzers fire. Each time I took him over to a position behind the No. 2 gun berm, where Main Man and company put on a clinic for the firing by the book of an 8-inch M110 self-propelled heavy howitzer.
Shortly after the mission ended, I escorted the general back to his Huey, and he left. Generals, I had learned, never smile or pass out compliments, but I could tell he was pleased with what he had seen.
A month or so before Main Man’s rotation date, the chief of firing battery came to me and related that Main Man wanted to go off the gun for the remainder of his tour of duty. I expressed surprise and asked the sergeant what did he want to do. He said he wanted to work in the motor pool.
Of course, the motor pool was the last place where most of the men wanted to work. When I asked why, the chief said that Main Man did not have a job waiting on him when he got back home, and he wanted to become a mechanic so he could support his wife and his infant son, whom he had not yet seen. Because there was replacement for Main Man’s position on the gun crew already in place, his request was granted, and Main Man pulled duty in the motor pool for the remainder of his tour.
Because of Main Man’s exceptionally meritorious performance during his tour of service, I recommended him for the Bronze Star Medal. About a week before he rotated, the colonel flew in from battalion, and I had the honor of standing beside the Battalion Commander before a battery formation when he read the citation that I had prepared, and he pinned the medal on Main Man’s chest. A few days later, Main Man rotated to CONUS for separation from service, and I never saw him again.
A thousand times over these almost 50 years, I have wondered what happened to Main Man. I wondered what kind of job he got when he got back home and how he dealt with the aftermath of the Vietnam War. I wonder if his kid got to go to college. I hope that he did.
But I have this deep conviction that Main Man went back home and became a part of what Carl Sandburg called “the great underbelly of America,” the truck drivers who transport our nation’s output of goods, the factory workers, blue-collar America that populate Friday Night Lights, who consume a sizeable portion of our national beer output and who collectively constitute the tough fiber of American society.
To borrow a phrase of William Faulkner, Main Man not only endured, he prevailed, because he had such a great soul.
Thus, on this Veterans Day in 2019, to Main Man and all the men with whom I was privileged to serve in B Battery, Second of the Ninety Fourth, and to all the men and women everywhere who have served our country in uniform and to their families who waited, worked and often sacrificed during their loved ones’ absence, Happy Veterans Day!
Stand tall. Be proud! This day is for you. Enjoy!