D. E. Larsen, DVM
There was still a slight chill in the August morning air as we waited in front of the Coos Bay post office, a little unsure of what was to happen next.
Then the doors swung open, and Mrs. Baxter emerged with her entourage of four middle-aged men, all dressed in ill-fitting suits.
Mrs. Baxter, whose hair was dyed a slightly reddish color with grey roots showing, was the chairwoman of the local draft board. She had a stack of manila folders in her hands.
She came to an abrupt stop directly in front of me. She extended her hands and pushed the stack of folders into my belly. I took the folders.
“You’re are in charge of this crew,” Mrs. Baxter said as she wrinkled her pointy nose. “These folders contain everybody’s information, meal tickets and bus tickets home. Don’t lose these folders, or you will not be very popular. When you arrive, you check into the YMCA, across the street from the bus station. After breakfast tomorrow, you report to the testing station, just down the street from the YMCA.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Who elected me to be in charge?” I was surprised that she knew who I was. We were not wearing name tags and were not otherwise identified.
“Young man, you are the oldest one here, and that makes the leader,” Mrs. Baxter said. “And you know what that means, you pass this physical, and I will see you again, very soon.”
With that, we loaded onto the waiting Greyhound bus. Mrs. Baxter stepped aboard the bus and handed the driver a packet with our tickets for the ride to Portland.
For me, the last half of nineteen-sixty-five was sort of a hectic blur. In mid-May, I received my “Greetings” from Uncle Sam. I had dropped out of school for the Spring quarter to work full-time. This would ensure I would have adequate funds for a year at Oregon State in the Fall. The greetings sort of disrupted those plans.
On the appointed day, I reported to the Post Office in Coos Bay for a bus ride to Portland for the first of a couple of physicals and a lot of testing. At twenty years and four months of age, I was the oldest in this group of some thirty young men. We were on the leading edge of the Military’s build-up for Vietnam.
Of course, I passed the physical with flying colors. After considering my options, I elected to enlist to have some semblance of control over my fate in the Army. I traded a couple of extra years for that control and enlisted in the Army Security Agency.
In the middle of September, I took another bus ride to Portland, another physical exam, and more testing. Then they herded us into a room and administered the oath. We were now in the Army.
I boarded my first commercial plane for a short flight to San Francisco. I had a window seat, and we landed on the runway that extends out into the bay.
“There is nothing but water under us,” I said to the guy sitting next to me.
The water got closer and closer. I was ready to jump before the runway suddenly appeared.
By the time we were checked in at the airport, it was dark. We had a middle-of-the-night bus ride to Fort Ord, located on Monterey Bay.
At this time, Fort Ord was still battling a Meningitis epidemic. Forty of us were assigned to the fifth platoon of Company A, Second Battalion. We were restricted to our platoon area. We had limited contact with the other four platoons in the Company. For eight weeks of Basic Training, the forty of us lived and trained together. We learned a lot, about the Army, about ourselves, and about each other.
The Company consisted of two hundred men. We were divided into five Platoons of forty men each. Each platoon had four squads of ten men each. When we marched, the fifth platoon was at the rear of the Company. The squads were aligned by height. I lacked the genetics for growing tall, I was the shortest in my squad, so I marched at the very end of the Company.
During this period of a rapid build-up of manpower, the Army was desperate for bodies. Almost anybody would do and then mix in our group of forty guys illustrated just how desperate they were.
Of the forty guys in the platoon, at least a half dozen suffered from dyslexia. They had reading problems and so tested poorly when it came to aptitude testing. Most of them were more intelligent than their papers told.
The guy that I felt the most empathy for was in the third squad. Howard Daniel Vandenacre was a big, strong farm boy from Montana. Close to six feet tall, he was well-muscled from hard work on the farm. His close-cropped hair from his Army haircut went well with the peach fuzz on his face. Despite his baby face appearance, he was one of the more muscular guys in the platoon.
Howard was one of those with dyslexia. He was normal in his conversations and a lot of functions, especially in physical training. But give him a task that required hand-to-eye coordination, and it would take forever for him to learn it.
And his voice was distinctive. To say it was high-pitched would be an understatement. It was almost a squeak.
It was this squeaky voice that first had the Drill Instructors (DIs) on his case. “Sound off like you have a pair!” they would shout into his face.
Howard’s reply would be a slightly louder squeak, “Yes, Sergeant!”
The first inspection was meant to be a learning experience. That is what it was for most of the platoon. Everyone seemed to have something wrong, how the bed was made, how the footlocker was arranged, or how the uniform was hung in the standing locker.
For Howard, it was a disaster. He had nothing correct. His foot lock was a mess. The DI threw it across the bay, almost hitting the guys standing across the aisle, scattering the contents everywhere.
After that inspection, several of us helped Howard daily. We helped make his bed in the mornings, clean his rifle and roll his socks in the evenings.
“I can make my bunk, and I can clean my rifle,” Howard said the second morning after the inspection. “But I need a lot of help with my footlocker. I just can’t roll my socks.”
Rolling his socks the Army way was a significant challenge for Howard. I think it took him a full 6 weeks before he could roll his socks without help.
His voice was just part of him. We were no help there. But all the abuse from the DI did not alter his cheerful nature.
Howard slept through every training film we attended. He would be sound asleep, but his head never wavered. The DIs were all over anybody whose head bobbed.
“How do you manage to keep your head straight up when you sleep in these films?” I asked Howard.
“That is easy,” Howard said. “I sat in front of Dad in church. Dad would bat me on the head if he thought I was sleeping.”
Howard had the work ethic that came from his upbringing. If there was work to be done, he was there. Often with a few other farm boys and me in the platoon. In combat training that required strength or athletic ability, he would excel. He was always there to lend someone a hand. He would carry the pack of some of the small guys when they needed a break or help them through a trench filled with water or over an obstacle. Always with a smile, and I never once heard him complain.
About the sixth week of basic, we were given training with gas warfare and the use of the gas mask. Howard had trouble getting his mask on most of the time and probably suffered a little more than most of us.
The final exam, so to speak, was an obstacle course of sorts. The platoon left a starting line, climbed through a large trench, and crawled under about thirty yards of barbed wire.
Somewhere in the middle of the barbed wire, they would hit the group with tear gas. Then we were to turn onto our backs, put on the gas mask, and continue through the wire on our backs. There was no way that Howard would be able to get his mask on under that wire.
After we were out of the wire, the assembly area was a large tree at the top of the hill. We would be out of the gas at that location.
I stood beside Howard at the starting line.
“I figure that if we go fast, we can be through that wire before most of these guys are out of the trench,” I said. “You stay up with me, and we won’t have to worry about the gas stuff. We should be up at the tree when they use it.”
The horn blew, and we were off like a shot. I hit the bottom of the trench and made the top of the far bank with one bounce. I glanced back as I started to crawl under the wire. No sign of Howard. I started my crawl under the wire, going as fast as I could. When I stood up at the far end and looked back, Howard was just getting out from under the wire. We ran up to the big tree together and were joined with Archer, another guy who had it figured out.
“You weren’t behind me at the start of the wire. How did you catch up?” I asked Howard.
“I got held up a little at the start. I dropped the magazine out of my rifle,” Howard replied. “I figured I was in trouble being behind everybody, so I just jumped the trench.”
I just shook my head. That had to have been quite a jump. I wished I had seen it. About then, I noticed the DI coming our way. He came up and sat down beside Howard.
“I have been doing this training for almost 2 years now,” he said. “I have never seen anybody even attempt to jump that trench. That was one hell of a leap, Private. Good job.”
Howard beamed and broke out in a broad smile. That was the only time I witnessed the DI giving Howard any positive feedback. We laid back and watched the rest of the platoon struggle getting through the wire with tear gas streaming over them.
As we prepared for the graduation ceremony at the end of Basic Training, I felt a sense of pride when I checked on Howard. His uniform was neat, and his brass was all on correctly. He had progressed a lot in these 8 weeks, probably more than the rest of us.
“I have never graduated from anything before,” Howard said. “I am sort of nervous. I wish my mother could be here.”
Graduation was short, then everyone was given their orders for the next training assignment. The last I saw of Howard, he was standing on the company street as I boarded a bus to the airport.
Time passes, and old Army buddies fade into that distant corner of your thoughts that are seldom visited. It was many years later when I started to wonder what had become of Howard. The search did not take long.
Today, if you are looking for Howard, you will find him on Panel 18E – Line 27.
For those who are not familiar with the address, it is on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
Howard Daniel Vandeacre
DOB Nov 18, 1946 Conrad, Montana
PFC E3 9th Infantry Division
Tour began Dec 1, 1966, Casualty was on Apr 14, 1967
In Long An, South Vietnam
Multiple Fragmentation Wounds
Panel 18E – Line 27
Newspapers.com link: https://www.newspapers.com/image/353890648/?terms=vandenacre&match=1