The March To The Sea

July 14th, 2023 by Tom Lynch

I was all set to write one of these Letters about Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville. Really. I was. Tuberville, the man who singlehandedly, by Senatorial “Hold,” has stopped Senate confirmation of more than 270 senior field grade officers, generals and admirals whom the Department of Defense would like to promote to mostly replace retiring DOD senior officers. These include members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including Chairman Mark Milley, who is set to retire at the end of September.  If Tuberville’s intransigence continues we may find ourselves without a Chair of the Joint Chiefs. Already, Tuberville has left the Marine Corps leaderless for the first time in 164 years. Doesn’t matter to him.

Why has Tuberville created this mess? Because the DOD, although none of its medical facilities conduct abortions, in compliance with the Hyde Amendment of 1976, has authorized women soldiers and sailors living and working in states that severely restricted access to abortions following the Dobbs decision to travel at government expense to states where abortion is legal and obtain one at their own expense.

Until now, Tuberville’s claim to fame has been a career as a relatively successful college football coach after earning a degree in Physical Education from Southern Arkansas University. Following a 21-year career coaching college football, most notably at Auburn University, where only 53% of his players actually graduated, well below the national average, he somehow convinced Alabama voters that they should make him one of their two US Senators. And they did, by a wide margin. Of course, it helped that he jumped on Donald Trump’s back and was then carried over the goal line by the MAGA Man in Chief. In case you’re wondering, Tuberville was one of the speakers at Trump’s rally on the Ellipse on the 6th of January 2022, and, later that day, actually after midnight, was one of the Senators who refused to certify Joe Biden’s election.

Two things bother me above all else in this matter. First, I have a deep affinity for and loyalty to the US Army. Although I hated everything the Vietnam War stood for, I found myself in the thick of it and did the best I could to keep my guys alive. I suppose I could have gone to Canada or petitioned for a deferment due to bone spurs, but when a few friends came home in their own olive green shrouds, I couldn’t help myself. Second, Tuberville’s ignorance and flat-out stupidity demonstrate a sorry excuse for a United States Senator. Our founders thought Senators would be the wisest of men (sorry ladies) and the epitome of probity and thoughtfulness. Hasn’t always worked out that way. 2023’s Exhibit #1: Tommy Tuberville.

Of course, Tuberville tells his legions of critics that if they want to confirm these people he has “held,” they can do it, just one at a time, not all at once as is the usual process. And wouldn’t that be fun? I can just see some Senators wanting to discuss the pros and cons of confirming Generals Tom, Dick and Harry ad nauseam. People, it’s embarrassing.

As I said, I was all set to write about terrible Tuberville, but I won’t. Instead, because he did get me thinking about my service in the Army, and because I was once acquainted with another kind of “hold,” I’m going to tell you the story of The March To The Sea.

Orders arrive

It was a beautiful late summer day, and I and my 28-man Platoon, including Rusty the scout dog and his handler, PFC Snyder, having recently concluded one of our personally rewarding occasional encounters with some of North Vietnam’s finest, were sunning ourselves on top of what passed for a mountain in northern South Vietnam, when Bobcat called.

Bobcat, who preceded Bulldog of The Nuts and Calendar fame, was Colonel Robert Stillingworth, “Still” to his friends, Bobcat to me. And don’t worry. It’s alright to name him. Bobcat has long since become one with the universe.

Anyway, Bobcat called, and the ultimate, sub-rosa reason he called was because in his tenth month of a 13-month Vietnam tour, Bobcat had yet to win his Silver Star, which he figured was essential to becoming a 1-star general. Of course, I did not know that at the time. Why should I? But afterwards it explained everything.

As soon as I heard his voice, I knew siesta-time was over.  “Go to the secure freq. I have orders for you,” he said. I switched to our secure frequency. He said, “You are to proceed to the sea.” Then he gave me a couple of coordinates, which by deduction worthy of Sherlock Holmes I presumed to be on the coast of the South China Sea somewhere. “You are to be there no later than 0100 hours. You will receive further orders upon arrival. Any questions?”

Well, no. Seemed simple enough. Then I heard, “Bobcat out.” The man had a way with words.

I pulled out my map and saw that our upcoming little stroll would cover about 24 kilometers, we called them “clicks”, or roughly 15 miles. Twenty-four clicks in less than eight hours and, since we had just been resupplied with rations, ammo and what not a couple of hours earlier, we’d be bebopping along with about 85 pounds on our backs.

The good news was we wouldn’t have to bebop through much jungle. After we made it down from the mountain, we’d be just about one click from Highway 1, the only paved road north of Saigon. We’d take that north, and it would lead us right to where we were supposed to go. Simple. As long as we didn’t stumble into any of the bad guys.

So, we gathered up our stuff and off we went. About an hour later, we were on Highway 1. That’s when the rain began. It rained all the way to the sea.

We arrive

In the gloom of a rainy night, about one click from where we were supposed to wind up, we took a right off the highway onto a dirt path and saw the lights from a village up ahead. As we got nearer we could hear voices, a lot of them. But before we got there we smelled the bread.

In our haste to make the deadline, we hadn’t stopped to eat, just kept slogging up Highway 1 in the rain. Now, dead ahead of us, a sorry group of cold and wet-to-the-core soldiers, was an old woman, smiling from ear to ear, standing behind a table in front of a tiny building that appeared to be the village bakery. She had two hanging oil lamps, one on each side of her, and spread out on her table were loaf after loaf of newly baked bread. The lady knew we were coming.

Ravenous as we were, we bought every loaf, making her instantly wealthy, and wolfed them all down. If you ignored all the sand still in the bread it was the best we ever tasted.

Then we moved on to our rally point, where all the voices were coming from. We found ourselves in a little harbor, really little. And in it were a few small boats, not much more than Sampans, really, but they had engines.

Orders are delivered

Standing on a small pier hanging out over the water was the Intelligence Officer of our Brigade, LTC Barnacle. He gave me written orders and told me the boats behind him belonged to the South Vietnamese Navy. “Excuse me, Colonel, South Vietnam has a Navy?” I asked. “Yup, and you’re lookin’ at it.” He then said, “Your orders are to board that ship over there with your men and, ah, the dog, I see you have a dog. The ship will ferry you up the coast to just south of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), where you will conduct an amphibious assault and secure the beach.”

I just looked at the man and said, “Sir, this is a joke, right?” “No joke,” he said. “Get ready to board, cause you’re leaving in 15 minutes.” “But sir,” I said, “Are you going to brief me on the resistance my men and I will likely encounter when we do this crazy thing?”

The Colonel draped his arm over my shoulder and pulled me aside. “Lieutenant,” he said. “Believe me when I tell you it is highly unlikely you and your men will encounter much resistance, if any.”

“Is this just an exercise?” I asked. “Sort of,” he said. “But it’s kind of secret. Now get your ass on the boat.”

On the boat with Rusty

So, we did. Rusty, PFC Snyder, and the rest of us loaded ourselves into the hold on the deck of the first boat. The hold, about 20 by 20 feet, sloped from the middle out to the sides. At the middle it was about three and a half or four feet high. At the sides it was down to about 2 feet. We crammed ourselves in. It would have been a lot less uncomfortable if it weren’t for all the 85-pound rucksacks and weaponry. We pushed off from the dock, and the put-putting engine sent us all slowly into the South China Sea.

About ten minutes later my big mistake reared its shaggy head, because that was when PFC Snyder, stuck way back in the left corner, yelled over to me, “Lieutenant, the dog’s gotta go.” The mistake had been loading Rusty and Snyder in first. They always led after our Point man in the jungle. Why not here? Well, this was why not.

There was nothing we could do, no way to get him anywhere else, so Rusty did his thing, a four-plopper according to Snyder, and the rest of our trip along the coast up the South China Sea was redolent with an aroma only a dog can make.

The assault

At 0815 hours in the morning we were at the assault point. Of course, the genius who designed the “plan” didn’t allow for low tide, so we hit the water for the big battle about a quarter mile from shore.

Not a shot was fired. Heads up, we casually waded ashore, walked up the beach, and found rectangular table after table along about 100 feet of beach, behind which, with smiles to light up the sky, stood about 25 women of the American Red Cross handing out cans of Coca Cola. To the guys in the field, they were known as “Doughnut Dollies.”

Having not died in the second coming of D-Day, we occupied the beach for the next three weeks, never encountering a single moment of stress from an enemy that must have had other things on its mind.

During the time on the beach I developed an infection from a small cut I got opening a can of Bud. So, I hopped a chopper and flew back to base camp for some antibiotic. While there I met up with the Brigade Adjutant, a friend. It was he who told me the story of how Bobcat had led the charge in an amphibious assault on a tightly held enemy location on the South China Seacoast, and, .45 calibers in each hand, had led his men to victory.

At least, that’s what the citation for his Silver Star said.