My guest today, Col (Ret) Keith Nightingale, served in infantry, Ranger and Special Operations forces during his 29-year career in the Army. He served two tours in Vietnam, first, as an adviser to the 52nd Ranger Battalion during Tet and then as a rifle company commander in the 101st Airborne during 1970-71. His career spanned assignments with the 75th Ranger Battalion, the Iran Rescue Task Force, and an assault force commander in Grenada. He is retired and lives in California where he raises limes and kills gophers. This is the first of two posts that he has donated to this website.
Ft Benning in 1965/66 was little changed from Ft Benning in 1945/46. The buildings were largely CCC wartime construction-pine slabs, green tarpaper roofs and peeling cream colored paint. The post was jammed with the residue of two divisions-the 1st Cav and the 2ID as well as the School Brigade-all gutted to fill the newly deployed Ist Cav to Vietnam. Thousands of soldiers-officers and enlisted-populated the post going through all the training the army Infantry machine required to backfill the expected casualties and organizational re-births. Charlie Black, a solid Ernie Pyle-type reporter from the Columbus Ledger kept all the non-deployed at the Post informed as to the Division’s actions and temperature.
The primarily visible population were the dependents-an Army term for wives and children. These were the families of school personnel as well as the more visible and numerically superior First Cav families-still groping to find their way so soon after their husbands deployed. The center of the dependents life was the Commissary-the Army supermarket before such a thing existed downtown.
The Commissary was on the top of a small hill at one of the sub-posts to Benning-Sand Hill. It was surrounded by a large parking lot and sparse pines offering little shade to the exposed red clay beneath. This was before air conditioning became a reasonable government investment and the green roof gave off visible density currents of heat into the muddled blue sky. This was the only like facility on the entire post so it was always packed to capacity. In fact it was so ingested that lines of people had to wait outside in the direct sun for the limited number of shopping carts available. Once a woman or soldier emerged with loaded carts, the next in que would trail like a shark to the car, help load the car and wheel the newly won prize into the building.
Sunday was a very popular day for shopping either before or after church. The customers tended to be better dressed, a bit more friendly and chatty and more forgiving of their situation. A reason the commissary was built where it was was that the post road seemed to coalesce at the base of the small hill. All roads led by the commissary and all transits came within sight of the building. So it was one Sunday morning at about 11AM.
The commissary, already completely full, had more than a hundred families, many with children, waiting outside for the next cart to be clear. Most of the men were in uniform-and uncomfortable at that. Army TW Cotton with iron-hard starch worn with a utilitarianly useless overseas cap was the uniform of the day. Already the starch was broken and sweat was circling the small of the back and the armpits of the shoppers male escorts. Children pulled and tugged at parents who tried to draw a line between decorum and necessity for some release. The families of the deployed soldiers were fairly easy to identify. None had male escorts and many had Cav patches on purses or Cav pins on their dress. They were uniformly quiet unless they were engaged with each other and carried on hushed conversations with tense gestures and looks with their compatriot wives.
The “war” or deployment of the Division had been less than ninety days ago.
To fill the Division, the army and post raided every unit available for manpower ranging from the very good to the questionably bad. When completed, the collection had netted personnel from virtually every unit at Ft Benning. Hence, the commissary reflected the familial residue of the post as a whole.
The post, while prepared to manage internal organizational issues, was not prepared to manage the external effects of combat. Accordingly, and very soon after the Cav deployed, casualty notices began to stream in from Western Union notifying next of kin of dead, wounded and missing loved ones-or “sponsors” as the army titled them. Ft Benning, due to both a lack of appropriate structure as well as a lack of people, quickly defaulted the solution to Western Union. In turn, they contracted with the local Yellow Cab company to transport the notification telegrams to the dependents. Within a week, this system became so ubiquitous and so dreaded that the sight of any cab on post caused people to stop, breath deeply and turn away. If a cab happened to be moving along the leaf-shaded streets of the post housing facilities, anxious faces would be drawn serially to the window as if on a conveyor belt as the cab transited. As soon as it left a house, screen doors would swing open and women would coalesce toward the designated address. The cabs had no set time and came at whatever moment the cabby had been given the envelope-in most cases, several. It was within this environment that the Sunday commissary crowd was drawn.
The sun was almost straight overhead and the air was thickly hot and suppurating. The cotton dresses of the women stood limp and the men’s uniforms were sticky and dark stained. The children had a torpidness that restrained their usual energy. The waiting line had a low hum of small conversations, fan and handkerchief waving and brow mopping. There was little relief by the door as the huge floor fans inside the commissary only moved the Bessemer-like air rather than lowered its heat.
Just below the hill, approaching directly to the road circumventing the building were four cabs in line. At first their approach went unnoticed. When the cabs drew onto the intersection, the first two turned left and the second two right. As if a cannon had just been fired, the entire waiting line stopped as if one and stared at the cabs. No words were spoken. The bodies stood stock still gripping their sides. Many bit their lips and began to softly cry shushing their children tugging on their arms. Several women fainted and were quietly moved to the curbing. Soon several loud cries came from the line and a number of women left their place and hurried to their cars. The residue of the deployment had arrived from LZ X-Ray.
If you watched the movie, “We were Soldiers…” the angst of seeing a yellow taxi cab slowly driving down your neighborhood street was clearly a heart stopping event as portrayed by the characters in the film. In Detroit, families were visited by military representatives in olive colored vehicles who generally stuck around to assist with the arrangements and helped with grief counseling.
Another fine article, sir! Thank you again for allowing me to publish here on my website. Thank you, too, for your service and sacrifice during your years of service. Welcome Home!
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