A Matter Of Coffee
In the year of 1966 I had just turned 18 years old and I was now looking for some adventure in my life. Against my family wishes, I joined the United States Army. The thought in my head was to volunteer for paratrooper training and become a radio telegraph operator in an infantry unit. In the infinite wisdom of the military, I was needed in another field of endeavor. This change contrary to my wants when I enlisted almost derailed me from my military goal. I was not destined to become a RTO, but an airborne cook. What a bummer. I later learned that when I singed on the dotted line to become airborne, my contract signing became null and void. This later I learned, when going airborne, I automatically was placed into an unassigned pool, which the military can and would place where you are the needed most. That need placed me in military cook school much to my chagrin.
I learned all the ends and outs as a student cook. My work located at the big duce military consolidated mess hall fort DIX New Jersey began in earnest as soon as I arrived. Mess Hall # 2 feed recruits by the thousands every day. Up before dawn, you looked what was on the day’s menu and what was your job for the up coming breakfast. You could be assigned to meats, which placed you on the bacon, or creamed beef on toast (SOS). Your job could be cooking eggs on the grill. This is a job all the troops liked me to do because I was good at not breaking the yokes. There was also a salad man and all he did was to make the salads and the called for dressings. Other jobs called for you to pick out DROs, pots and pan men and grease pit cleaners which was the nastiest and least liked of all the mess duty jobs, and your mess hall cleaners. My 8 weeks at cook’s school was a long one indeed.
After I graduated from spoon school, orders were given to me and the duty station was Europe. You can say I was happy to get this assignment because after jump school the majority of the airborne grads was sent to south East Asia, better known as Vietnam. My joy would soon be dashed to the rocks when 8 months later I also would be completing my enlistment in the country of Vietnam. What a bummer, here we go again My name came up on a levee for nam and I had 10 days to clear post and get myself to fort Campbell K.Y. home of the 101st airborne division.
I had the privilege to take part in the largest division movement to a hostile environment by air in the history of modern warfare. The 101st flew all division elements and its equipment minus the first brigade, which was already in country to the republic of Vietnam. I was placed on a c141 cargo plane that had no personal seating but was filled with jeeps, and steel conexs. I flew over 10,000 miles on a plastic woven jump seat. My behind was sore for two weeks after touch down in Bien Hoa Vietnam. My aircraft route of travel took me from K.Y to Alaska, Japan, to Vietnam.
I was awakened to the reality of my venture, when upon landing and the aircraft door opening, I received the hottest blast of air I could imagine. After departing the aircraft and being directed to the main assembly area, a large flash followed by a horrendous explosion, cracked the still night wide open. While on the floor of the depot a soldier came running in and told us to stay put and not to move around because enemy sappers have just blown up the large ammo dump. Not wanting to be shot by are own side by mistake, I and other members remained glued to our places on the depot floor. Then a voice pierced the silent night, welcome to Vietnam. What an ass hole. So far two strikes against me (the flight over) (ammo depot blown up) was there to be a third strike on my list of misfortunes, time will tell.
Trucks to our base camp convoyed the advanced party, which was to be taken over from the big red 1. The first infantry division provided convoy escort to their former base phouc vinh, which is located in the 3 corps AO. When passing these guys (1st inf) they sang our airborne song, blood upon the risers and at the top of their lungs the last stanza, OH HE AIN`T GONNA JUMP NO MORE. All we could do was smile and wave at those legs (non jumper). The red 1 did an outstanding job of protecting us on our way to base camp, and it was a true privilege to work with these guys during our transition period.
Once at our base camp PAPA VICTOR or Phouc Vinh, The daily routine of getting our battalion base camp began to take shape. Each cook was assigned a mess hall to work. I think there were three mess halls in our battalion ao. Mess duty is good duty, and even better if you are a good cook. Good food is a strong moral builder for the troops who are in the field most of the time doing their jobs. Bad food to the troops can get you in hot water very quickly. The saying an army moves on its stomach is so true.
I was made a night baker because of the bread and rolls I came up with while cooking on my shift. Man the men loved my hot fluffy rolls. Officers and other men alike came to my mess hall just to experience that taste of home cooking. Because of my baking talent I was asked if I would like to be the night baker. I jumped at the chance. The night baker did his thing while the rest were sleeping; this respite gives the baker a chance to prepare pies, cakes, and other items that were called for on the next day menu. Other duties of the night baker are to make sure the place is cleaned from top to bottom. Floors and all equipment are sanitized this includes the huge coffee urn
The night that was to play a big part in my growing up came quicker then I ever would have thought, and it came with a bang.
I was rolling the dough that was to be the crust for my lemon pies, when a first sergeant came through the door with a coffee pot in his hands. I exchanged pleasantries with top and asked what I could do for him. The NCO stated he was here for some coffee for himself and others. I told the sergeant that I did not have any coffee made as of yet because I was cleaning the urn and it was filled with hot sudsy water. The NCO went ballistic on hearing that not coffee was at his beck and call. I tried to calm him down, and let him know that as soon as the urn was clean I would get the coffee up for him.
My words had no effect on this irate NCO, and he began to berate me and call me names. It was at this time I could tell that this guy was drunk or close to it. Again I tried to calm this guy down, but again to no avail. I took matters in to my hands and told the sergeant that in the infinite wisdom of the army I was put in charge of this mess hall, and as a person in charge I telling you to get out. The NCO called me a few other choice words and with his face flushed with anger did an about face and stormed out of the mess hall.
I continued to my night duties and finished the pies and made sure everything was dress right dress for the day shift before I headed to my hooch and a well-earned rest. I had not laid my head down for long when a knock came at the cook’s hooch door. The SP4 was told to enter and with that I was told to pack my shit because I was now an infantrymen in company B. I could only look at this guy in stark belief. No due process just gets out and dies. I was tossed to the wolves over a cup of coffee. I had to believe that my being treated this way was not about coffee or rank, but about race. The sergeant in question was a good old southern boy and he had some issues with minorities in his outfit. There was some tension in our unit, and fights had broken out that was attributed to race relations. When I realized what was happening I straightened my back and had the resolve to do what I had to do, survive and show all that you can’t keep a good man down. I learned tactics needed to become a good infantryman OJT and some of my best lessons of life came to me while living and fighting with the best group of men in the US Army 3/187 RAKKASANS Company B 101st AIRBORNE DIVISION 1967-1968.
Was it a matter of just coffee? The story continues.
WM Roland Hayes.