The Crazy Captain
Right after the new company clerk arrived, a new CO and First Sergeant were also assigned. Our old CO had been reassigned to the 10th Special Forces Group in Germany and First Sergeant Vidrine was reassigned as our training team sergeant. We found out—like Vidrine—the new CO was also a Korean combat veteran. His name was Captain Wadie J. Rountree.
We learned from a personnel clerk that the captain had spent twenty-eight months in a North Korean POW camp run by the Communist Chinese Army. Lucky for him because we also learned most (if not all) of the POWs in the camps run by the North Koreans did not make it out of the POW camp alive.
The name of the POW camp Captain Rountree was a prisoner in was Pyok-Dong #2. It was located a few miles from the Manchurian border in North Korea, just south of the Yalu River. It was one of eleven such POW camps that held United Nations military POWs, as well as civilian missionaries.
We were already well into a cold North Carolina winter and our annual Inspector General (IG) inspection by the Fort Bragg Inspector General’s Office was scheduled to take place within a month or so. IG inspections were an annual form of harassment endured by all army units back then. The inspections were designed to ensure every active duty company’s equipment was being properly maintained and accounted for. Another component was a physical inspection of the barracks and other buildings to ensure they were being properly maintained. Failing any part of these inspections would not look good upon the Captain’s record and would also create many more weeks of lost training preparing for a re-inspection.
So there we were that cold North Carolina winter morning in late 1955, standing in formation listening to our new CO tell us we were going to wash the barracks. “No big deal,” I thought. The CO then went on to explain to us we were going to wash not only the inside of the barracks, but the outside of them as well!
A groan went up from every enlisted man in the formation. “This guy is crazy,”I thought.“He has spent too long in a POW camp and his mind is gone! Why would anyone have us wash the outside of these old WWII wooden buildings in the freezing cold”?
It was several days after we had gone through the agony of hosing down and washing the outside of the buildings. I was walking to the mess hall one evening with Corporal Avon P. Bottom. We stopped momentarily to read the bulletin board and spotted a full-page note upon which the First Sergeant had hand-written a single sentence. “The uniform for reveille tomorrow morning will be low quarters.”
I jokingly said, “It is going to be cold as H_ _ _ in that formation with just our low quarters on.” Avon laughed and commented that the First Sergeant probably meant we were to wear our regular training uniforms, which consisted of fatigues, field jackets and berets, but instead of wearing boots, we would wear our low quarters so the First Sergeant could inspect them, and have us take them in for repairs if necessary before the IG arrived.
Our new First Sergeant was a short, stocky master sergeant. He had been in combat in both WWII and Korea, and—like MSG Vidrine—he had earned himself a chest full of medals. But—unlike Vidrine—that was where the resemblance stopped. Because of his smoking and eating habits, the new First Sergeant had become a bit pudgy and out of shape.
If you have ever read the cartoon “Beetle Bailey,” then you would recognize him as the spitting image of Sergeant Snorkel. Like Sergeant Snorkel, every other word out of his mouth was a cuss word—and he had a quick temper to boot.
The new First Sergeant was also very predictable. Every morning a few minutes before reveille, he would stomp into the downstairs of the barracks and in a booming voice yell at the troops to get outside to the reveille formation. He would then stomp up the stairs to the second floor of our barracks, again yelling at us to get outside.
There I was the next morning in the barracks—in my birthday suit—wearing nothing but low quarters. The rest of the guys on the floor were laughing and telling me the First Sergeant would have a fit when he saw me. True to form, we heard him bellow out his command of “outside for reveille” to the guys downstairs.
Their movement out the door was immediately followed by the now familiar “clomp–clomp–clomp” on the stairs as the First Sergeant made his way up the stairs. As soon as he had turned the corner of the stairwell, he spotted me standing in the center aisle of the barracks in my birthday suit wearing nothing but my low quarters.
Just as I had predicted, he shouted a string of un-printable expletives, immediately followed by, “Reed, you #@*&*/*! You had better not show up in my reveille formation dressed like that! Now everyone else—fall out for reveille!”
As the First Sergeant went down the stairs, a feeling of relief came over me. If that had been First Sergeant Vidrine, I would never have pulled that stunt.
Had I tried that with First Sergeant Vidrine, he would have just smiled at me and quietly said, “Reed, you’re the only one in the barracks in the proper uniform. Fall out as you are. I will see you outside—and that is an order!” And I would have gotten frostbite in some pretty embarrassing places. But this First Sergeant did not do that.
Now, all I had to do was to quickly get dressed and head for the warm mess hall. I did not have to worry about making reveille because the First Sergeant—in front of thirty witnesses—had just ordered me not to appear in his reveille formation.
It was still dark outside, and the formation had already left for the open field across the street behind the row of mess halls for their uniform inspection—under the huge bright field lights of the parade field.
As I passed behind the barracks on my way to the mess hall, I stopped by the bulletin board and retrieved the First Sergeant’s note about the uniform for reveille. Somehow I thought, “I will need this piece of paper.” I put the note safely inside my field jacket pocket.
Sure enough, after breakfast, when the Training Company had formed up for our training announcements, the First Sergeant barked out:
“Corporal Reed, the old man wants to see you in the orderly room right after this formation.”
“Yes, First Sergeant,” I replied.
As I entered the orderly room, I patted my field jacket pocket to make sure that I still had the note. As soon as I shut the outer door, the First Sergeant began cussing and shouting at me.
He informed me in no uncertain terms that he was going to have my stripes as well as a designated part of my anatomy. He ordered me to report to the CO and as I entered the commander’s office, I began to have reservations about whether or not I was going to keep my stripes.
After I had reported to Captain Rountree, he told me to stand at ease, and he then proceeded to inform me that the First Sergeant wanted him to sign charges against me for being AWOL from the morning reveille formation. Captain Rountree then asked me to tell him what had occurred that had caused me to miss the reveille formation.
As I proceeded to tell him about the First Sergeant’s order, Captain Rountree looked past my shoulder and said, “First Sergeant, back away, I will handle this.” I could smell the smoke imbedded in the First Sergeant’s fatigues as he pressed against my back—breathing down my neck, trying to intimidate me.
I continued to tell the Captain I was in the uniform of the day when the First Sergeant had ordered me not to appear in the reveille formation dressed as I was. Again, the captain told the first sergeant to back off and let me tell my side of the story.
“What uniform were you wearing?” he asked.
“The uniform the First Sergeant had instructed us to wear at reveille this morning, Sir—low quarters.” I replied.
“That’s a lie, I told them to …” The first sergeant shouted.
The CO cut him off again, telling the First Sergeant to let me finish my side of the story.
“What else were you wearing?” the CO asked me.
“Nothing, Sir, the note on the bulletin board said the uniform for reveille was low quarters.” I replied.
I could tell by the look on his face that the Captain was trying very hard not to laugh—or even smile. He had a stern look upon his face as he asked:
“Corporal Reed, do you have any idea as to where this note might be now? Both the First Sergeant and I looked over the entire bulletin board this morning and we were unable to locate any such directive from the First Sergeant.”
“Yessir,” I replied, “I have it right here in my pocket.”
I opened my field jacket pocket and gave him the note I had removed from the bulletin board earlier that morning. Captain Rountree read the note—again trying hard not to smile—and then he looked up and said, “Corporal Reed is there anything further you want to say in your defense?”
Now I was beginning to get a little worried. I had thought the note would be enough. I then explained to Captain Rountree I thought the note was rather specific—as was the order given by the First Sergeant in the barracks before reveille this morning. I told him the First Sergeant had made it clear—I was not to appear in the reveille formation.
“But, Captain, no one else was . . .” the 1SG blurted out.
“First Sergeant, is this your handwriting?” asked the CO.
Captain Rountree then handed the note to the First Sergeant. After looking at it, the First Sergeant replied, it was his handwriting.
He told the CO he had written the note and posted it on the company bulletin board the night before. Captain Rountree told me to continue with my explanation. I explained the First Sergeant did not tell me to change uniforms, or put on fatigues and fall out to the formation.I went on say:
“And he did not tell me to fall out for reveille as I was dressed. He just shouted at me and ordered me not to show up in his formation dressed like I was—and the guys on the second floor of the barracks all heard him give me that order.”
Captain Rountree slowly nodded his head, and said, “I have heard enough!” The Captain looked up from reading the note and said, “First Sergeant, unusual as it may seem, Corporal Reed did obey your order not to show up for reveille.”
He then looked at me and said, “Corporal Reed, there will be no charges brought against you. You are released to go to training.”
I promptly came to attention, saluted the CO, said, “Yessir” and immediately left his office and the orderly room.
There was no doubt in my mind that I was now on the First Sergeant’s hit list—with a capital “S.” But I thought I was a little bit smarter than he was, which made all the difference in the world to me as far as giving me peace of mind.
I did not know it then, but I would encounter the First Sergeant several more times within the next several decades. The first reunion between the two of us would occur almost a decade later.
As a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant, I was reporting in to the 7th Special Forces Group. This was to be my first assignment out of Officer Candidate School (OCS). I had just graduated and been commissioned a week earlier. The young captain I spoke to at the Special Forces Training Center had asked my old First Sergeant—now a Sergeant Major—to escort me to the Group Headquarters to report in to the Group commander. As the two of us walked across the parade field towards the Special Forces Headquarters, the Sergeant Major kept calling me “Lieutenant” rather than using the more polite, courteous term of “Sir.”
While it was technically correct for a non-commissioned officer to address a commissioned officer by his rank instead of saying “Sir,” it was the enlisted man’s way of “dissing” a commissioned officer. There was little doubt in my mind that he had not forgotten that morning after reveille almost a decade earlier.
** END OF CHAPTER PREVIEW **