Chapter 5 from “The Cavalry Trade” by LTC John Stockton

Posted on August 13, 2017





As near as I know, in the United States Army between about 1940 (or 1943) and 1967 there were only two ways to conduct training in a combat or combat support unit – train because you want to, or train because you have to. I’ve done both.
Training because, as a commander, you want to is already a step in the right direction. But it is one among many, many steps, which need to be taken to get from where you are to where you know you have to be. On the other hand, training because you have to is just a notch above painting rocks in the squadron area to keep idle hands busy while your painters develop that glutinous slime between their eyelids from, say, 0800 to 1700 hours daily. Military clock time.
I suppose we’d better have a crack at defining “training” as used in the Army’s everyday lexicon. To my way of thinking, training means practicing under learning conditions to do those things necessary for getting your job done correctly in an operational environment. Quickly and as easily as possible and without spending too much time debating the consequences.
Some training subjects need learning in an absolute “do this, don’t do that” mode. Take a sudden engine failure in the trees when you’re maybe going 80 mph and you’re 12-15 feet above the deck. Full fuel or empty tanks, alone or with a squad of grunts in the back seat, out there in the enemy’s domain or already on the way home, daylight or darkness – none of that matters for the next few seconds. There’s only one name to this particular game: live through the event – everybody on board walks away from the point of ground contact! What a simple scenario, and yet my experience is that more rotorheads kill themselves and their crews and their passengers in failing to do the right things at the right time in the right sequence while coping with this kind of emergency than almost anything else in the air cavalry trade. It takes training, seemingly endless repetitive training to do this one right – and walk away from it – when the event is one day immediately upon you like that 800-pound gorilla sitting suddenly on your shoulders and breathing fire and brimstone down your neck complete with an especially vile halitosis.
Then there’s the kind of training with a slightly longer time fuse attached which leads you to do the right thing at the right time because you’ve been exposed to the possibility of this or a similar situation before. Like selecting at first glance a suitable LZ for getting your Blue platoon into the best position for it to accomplish the assigned mission. And getting it out again when the job’s done. Here again it helps, a lot, to have been through the same drill time after time after time under learning conditions.
And it takes repetitive training under a wide variety of circumstances to accomplish that most delicate of feats which we called “Squadron Scramble” in the 1/9 Cavalry. Realigning the unit from three Red-White-Blue troops to a different mixture – that early November 1965 night on the Ia Drang it was a scramble to a Red troop (Guy Beardsley) + a White Troop (Billie Williams) + a Blue Troop (Bob Zion) – calls for expertise in many areas. From radio frequencies to command mindsets. And lots of attitude adjustment.
Finally, only training – again and again and again – brings a comprehension throughout the unit of what the cavalry job is and what it is not. Air Force jocks and NASA space cadets call this “testing the envelope.” In our more prosaic ground combat theater-of-the-sublime we call it mission definition. Throughout American military history the proper, the do-able, role of cavalry has been perhaps the most misunderstood of all combat functions. The Confederate General Marse Bob Lee understood it from the beginning and because he did and he used his best cavalryman, JEB “Beauty” Stuart, wisely and well, he outfought the massed Union Army of that parade of mediocre combat commanders from Scott to Meade until he lost Stuart at Yellow Tavern in 1864. From that moment on it was bye-bye for the Confederacy, that militarily splendiferous dream. At least partly because we didn’t understand the efficient cum effective employment of cavalry in Vietnam from late 1961 until the end of that tragic conflict, we lost that particular war. Looking back from the vantage point of twenty years’ hindsight we can today conclude that the Vietnam quagmire was for American arms the pluperfect setting for the broad and daring employment of cavalry, using whatever mode of getting from here to there.
Getting back to the training business. It’s not enough for the commander to be personally enthusiastic about training his unit for their combat role. Somehow some way he must also inspire as many members of his command as possible to look on the procedure with the same enthusiasm. Admittedly, you’re not going to wrap every last swinging click into the fold. At the minimum, though, it is imperative to enlist the wholehearted support of all hands down through the buck sergeant level.
As a CO you don’t accomplish the above by simply pronouncing that this is the way it’s going to be. You need your captains and your sergeants to be on your side because they want to be. Talk to them in their language. Make sure that every last one of them understands deep down inside himself where he lives that this about-to-be combat ready unit belongs to him just as much as it belongs to you. The proper pronoun is the first person plural, every time.
Of course it helps if you’ve been down this street before. In July of 1964 when we began in earnest the job of training the world’s first air cavalry formation at Fort Benning it helped – a lot – that I knew a little about the practical side of combat both from my days as a WWII tank platoon leader and company commander plus my 1961-62 season in Vietnam where we began to learn about actual combat applications of rotary wing power. And eighteen months as an l lth Cavalry rat patrol squadron CO back in 1953-1955 didn’t hurt.
None of this is to say that you’re in the Messiah business. Nor are you in any manner involved with winning a popularity contest. For my money the two key factors in getting a unit like ours combat ready are:
1) A sergeant major with whom you’re compatible and where there exists that almost magical exchange of mutual trust and confidence. Keep shuffling if you have to until you find that singularly correct CO/SGM bond. When you have it, and you’ll know the moment when it happens, don’t let go. Except for the requisite formalities of military law and customs of the service, your sergeant major is responsible for everything involving the care, feeding, morale, welfare, readiness status, suitability and compatibility of every enlisted soldier in the unit. Don’t worry about his interfering with the troop commanders’ prerogatives and perquisites – your sergeant major will solve those problems. After all, he didn’t just one day fall off the passing turnip truck; it probably took him as long to earn all those rockers and that star as it did you to win your bottlecaps. His messengers are the troop first sergeants. Enlisted morale and discipline is his baby. Just give him the backing he needs, every time, and make sure that support is clearly understood by all hands.
2) EITHER a coterie of line troop commanders who share your operational and command/control beliefs and who want to take their segment of the combat machine where you want it to go OR a strong XO/OpnsO team which is mutually reinforcing and compatible to take care of all the multitudinous business of a combat ready cavalry squadron so that you can devote your full time efforts to choosing and then developing the best people available to command your line troops.
Amazingly, that’s all it really takes to turn-out the best cavalry squadron God ever put on this earth – less than a dozen really good men who think like you do and who share your cavalry dreams. When you have them they will in turn attract more of the same ilk both by their words and their presence. Like the ever-widening wavelet circles when you drop a pebble off the bridge into a quiet lake.
Get rid of those people in your command early on who put other things before the overall best interest of the entire unit. Or just can’t bring themselves to see eye to eye with you on the big picture. They’re better off and the Army is better off – and you’re better off as the CO – if they go to other duties where they can make a more worthwhile contribution of their talents.
As a matter of fact, I learned many years later that the 1/9 Cavalry Squadron pretty well purged itself during those days between the rumor and the fact of my selection as CO. After all I was even then no neophyte at the working command level of the llth Air Assault cum 1st Cavalry Division – I had spent most of my first year in the command as CO of the world’s first assault helicopter battalion. Folks who didn’t think they could work with me, enlisted and warranted and commissioned, were quick to find other jobs beyond the confines of the 1/9 Cavalry Squadron area when my name came up on the command board. And they were wise to do so. Moreover, the Division and the Army as a whole benefited appropriately. Square pegs in square holes.
It took a little while, but not all that much, for SGM Kennedy and my ultimate troop commander team of Majors Beardsley + Williams + Zion and Capts Bachman/Gillette/Hlywa and me to get comfortable in the saddle. Kennedy spent a lot of time during those early days down at the divisional in-processing personnel center looking over the latest batch of enlisted arrivals. Like a knowledgeable buyer at a cattle auction he picked out the men who looked to him like they were our kind of folks and routed them ever so deviously and ever so gracefully through the lines and gates and interview tables to the exit sign which read “1/9 Cav.” Likewise, key officer players scouted around and pulled into the fold a growing number of stalwart troopers – Capt Dick Marshall and Capt John Sabine among many, many others. And virtually all these selected people, once they accepted their fate, began to persuade others of their ilk to join us. It was never anything close to a mob clamoring at the sign-up portals, of course, but the men who joined us like that did so because they wanted to and not because they had to. They aggregated a tremendous plus for the squadron.
Also, I had a quiet genius or two back at squadron headquarters working day in and day out, quietly and unobtrusively, to keep our administrative and logistical oars in the water at a yeoman level of performance. Dick Grube, Sqn Adj, comes quickly to mind. And Hap Rose, Acft Maint O. And others, many others. We worked for several months without a Sqn XO until finally I just had to pull Don Radcliff up from his C Troop CO slot to fill that slot. I was spending more and more of my waking moments out on the firing ranges or off in some distant training area to take care of all the typical burning home fires which were beyond the ken of the squadron staff worker bees. Don, a very good air troop CO, was the senior major on board and reluctantly accepted his fate. Unfortunately for all concerned we never really benefited from his presence in the head shed. About the time he learned his way to his office I selected him to represent the 1/9 Cav on the divisional advance detachment to RVN. Bored silly with chopping weeds in the An Khe base area, Don sneaked off one weekend to visit one of his erstwhile flying buddies in an independent lift company. And promptly got shot in the base of his skull with an errant VC sniper round when his friend took him out on a “no sweat” mission. Sic transit gloria.
Once upon a time, many years ago, there was an almost-blind defensive tackle playing consistent All Star football for the Green Bay Packers (I think) in the NFL. A reporter asked him how, with his ultra defective eyesight, he managed to lead the League in tackles behind the line of scrimmage. By way of reply he said, “Well, I try to get a quick jump through the offensive line and then I just feel around for the quarterback.” That describes accurately the way we trained the 1/9 Cav in 64-65.
By the end of the second Carolinas maneuver series (from the Wateree to the Pee Dee, and beyond!) in the late fall of 1964 you would have had to be either the village idiot or a very recent arrival on this planet to believe the 11th AAD was going anywhere but straight to Vietnam just as soon as the grand panjandrums on the land warfare side of the national defense establishment got their ducks lined up. That simple fact meant that the training we were doing had a most direct bearing not only on how we were going to get the combat job done, but also how many of us were going to get back home alive and well at the end of our respective duty tours. We spent a lot of time, I would guess at least three times as many days as any other combat arms battalion size unit in the division, as far as we could get from the soft Fort Benning garrison life with its fatal distractions from the job of becoming combat ready. Weeks at Camp Stewart, where some squadron nut once did a midnight renaming job on the turnaround at the center of the abandoned main garrison area to “Stockton Circle,” days at other such unlikely locales as Camp Shelby MS and Camp Blanding FL and Fort McClellan AL. And all the time we could get on the Fort Rucker air-to-ground gunnery ranges. Of all the questions asked me in the decades since, none has been more frequent than one about how I could get away with taking my troopers away from their families on such a monumental scale. At the time this wasn’t even a glimmer of a problem for any member of the extended squadron family. Sgt Maj Kennedy and the troop commanders and their first sergeants briefed every single interested family member group as frequently as time permitted on what we were doing and how we were doing it. Complete with maps and time/mission charts in simple understandable language which the wives and girlfriends and teenybopper children seemed to enjoy hugely.
Also, we managed to work in an immediate 72-hour stand-down for all hands who’d been gone on training every time we got back to Harmony Church. As soon as the birds and guns were reconstituted to combat-ready status, troopers up through E7 and 03 level dropped everything else where it was and took off. Not the next day or the next weekend but the minute they were turned loose by their immediate supervisors. The home garrison warriors stood watch and fought the never-ending paper war while the field hands hit the sheets (or the bars).
We used another routine carried over from my 11th Cavalry days. On the last duty day of every week we were in garrison we held a very simple come-as-you-are retreat formation in front of squadron headquarters complete with the appropriate bugle calls from the illegal squadron bugler or, on rare occasion, music rendered by a segment of the division band. After the proper respect was paid to the Stars & Stripes every trooper and every extended squadron family member who felt like it gathered around the pin oak tree next to our HQ building and queried Sgt Maj Kennedy and me on where we were taking things and what we thought about the future and anything else on anybody’s mind. That helped a lot. On both sides of the command fence.
Likewise, when we were out in the field I held a command performance for all our line sergeants and officers almost every evening after supper from just about dusk until I began to notice heads nodding. Other ranks were free to attend and listen but not to participate; both Kennedy and I were always surprised to look around and see how many heads there were out there in the gloaming. During these evening discussions I tried to lay out as clearly as I knew how what I considered to be the cavalry role in combat, how that role could be realistically translated to mission performance in Vietnam, what my own experience told me we could expect to happen to us, and how to get our jobs done completely and well with the least possible loss of those two vital cavalry elements, time and surprise. We had a lot of free-for-all verbal exchanges on all kinds of combat related subjects and we all profited and learned from these arguments. When we agreed we needed to know more about some procedure or other we just went out the next day and tried it out to see what worked best.
Like coiling up at night out in bad guy territory (which I insist on calling “laagering” to this day, for reasons long since forgotten). We ultimately decided to cut the squadron perimeter up into pie slices at one slice per troop, with all vehicles – air and ground – parked nose-out. And with a well rehearsed emergency drill to either lay down our final protective fires and button up or else fly out of there simultaneously with all hands aboard all birds. Eighty or ninety helicopters beating into the air at night with only taped-over running lights, each one on a predetermined compass heading and with a clearly understood rally point. In the beginning that was one hairy exercise, but we practiced the event with a no-warning drill at least once a week until we actually got pretty good at it. And that simple training exercise not only showed every rotorhead in the squadron what he could accomplish with just a little foresight and practice, but it also paid off in spades when we had to go out there that November midnight on the Chu Pong and answer Bob Zion’s prayers.
Then there was the ultra complex dichotomy of group and mini-group attitudes. Take the scouts, or Whites, for example. This segment was by far the craziest piece of the 1/9 Cav jigsaw during my time. Moreover, up to a certain point, I encouraged these zanies. There were only two limiting features to the coda I imposed on them: 1) remember that your job is to collect and report accurate usable information about the enemy, the terrain and the weather; 2) never get yourself or your bird into a situation you can’t get out of.
The Guns and the Blues had their own idiosyncrasies. We all had to work very hard at establishing and maintaining squadron confidence in the supporting rocket fire which the Gun platoons were capable of providing us. Little by little this came about. It was epitomized at LZ Betty when, at Bob Zion’s +0100 request, Guy Beardsley and his three gun platoons brought their final protective ring of fire to within 20 yards of Zion’s outpost line. As to the Blues we had the same problems with motivation and morale as do all other rifle units, only ours seemed to be less intense, probably because we were in-and-outers in our use of these elements, each worth its weight in gold. And they were blessed with especially inspired platoon commanders, Chuck Knowlen and Jack Oliver among many others. Also, Sgt Maj Kennedy worked a little of his special magic here. Every week or so I would notice that our command jeep shotgun rider on the pedestal-mounted mg would be a different trooper. I didn’t pay much attention to the situation because it was Kennedy’s department. Then one day, maybe up at the Pleiku airstrip, more than a year after this trooper rotation had begun going on, I asked Kennedy about it. And learned that he had long been sponsoring a “Grunt of the Week” contest via the four line troop first sergeants. Each week’s winner got a week off from real duty to ride around on the command jeep!
Then there was the tin pot (steel helmet) problem. I hated that monstrosity with a pure passion. In all my active duty years I never put one on for more than 20 minutes at a time without getting a stupendous headache. So I wore soft headgear, sometimes even my original black hat presented to me on my 42d birthday during the last Carolinas maneuvers when we were up on the Wateree. Since I didn’t conform on this subject I couldn’t order my troops to do so. Our headgear turnout was always an odd, sometimes bizarre, affair. It got me in trouble more than once.
Once upon a time, back in my 11th Cavalry days of the 1950s, I got zapped by some silly ass Annual IG inspector for not properly displaying what were called chain-of-command photos in my squadron’s headquarters and troop orderly rooms. My main offense, which cost us a Superior rating that year, was in using for a command photo of the Fort Knox KY CG, Maj Gen George Windle Read, a circa 1925 enlarged snapshot of General Read when he was an 11th Cavalry first lieutenant himself. He was at the head of his troop at present arms during a mounted parade and his horse was urinating copiously and very obviously. Mrs Read had given me the photo – not only was I a reverent subordinate of Gen Read and an admirer of his lady, but he and my dad had been cavalry contemporaries during those long years between WWI and WWII – and approved heartily of its chain-of-command use.
With that experience in mind I surveyed my squadron and every subsequent unit I ever commanded as to the cognizance by line troopers of their superiors. I learned that the workaday rank-and-file in any combat type unit starts to lose interest VERY rapidly on the who’s who subject once you go beyond the grade of captain. That was just as true for Red, White and Blue captain platoon commanders as for any other element of any command. From that conclusion I opined that home for Mr Everyman cavalry soldier is where the captain hangs his hat.
And so it is on the line captain and the line E6/E7 sergeant that the combat world turns in the cavalry. Most of these individuals don’t come to you ready-moulded; it’s your job as troop and squadron commander to make them into what you need for them to be. Fortunately, the vast majority in these two critical categories with whom I’ve ever associated asked nothing better than to become the leaders we wanted to serve with. In the beginning it is painful, often agonizingly so, to let them make those costly and embarrassing mistakes which you could have so easily corrected. But they have to learn and they learn best by doing. Patience. And mercy. Do this one job faithfully and carefully in training and you will be rewarded a hundredfold in combat. Thus speaketh this now-ancient Bullwhip. It will ever be so.
From “The Cavalry Trade” by Colonel John B. Stockton, “Bullwhip 6” – the trainer and first commander in combat of the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, the air cavalry squadron of the 1st Air Cavalry Division.