“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
“Only you—only you!—could manage to get shot in the ass!”
The year was 1987. A group of middle-aged men sat under the umbrellas at the cheap fiberglass tables of the Holiday Inn in Columbus, Georgia not far from Fort Benning. They deserved a Ritz-Carlton, but this would have to do. The sign out in front of the hotel, the letters hanging somewhat askew, read:
WELCOME 8TH AIRBORNE RANGER COMPANY
The comment about taking an unfortunate enemy round in the gluteus maximus was an affectionate jab from one member of the company to another, and it was met with howls of protest and laughter.
“Son,” a grizzled old veteran said gripping my shoulder while the other men tried to interrupt him. “Hush! Hush!” he said to them in mock annoyance before turning back to me. “I mean it went in one cheek and came out of the other just as neatly as could be! No bone, just flesh!”
The index finger of his right hand poked one of his own cheeks while the thumb of his left hand moved up and out on the other side, indicating the bullet’s exit.
The conversation turned to a man with an even more unfortunate war wound.
“I tell ya, he thought his life with the ladies was over.” The other men listened expectantly for the ending of a story they knew well. “There was so much blood, we feared he had been gut shot. But, nooo!”
“No!” bellowed another, like a member of the choir in a good Pentecostal church.
The teller of the story continued: “So, I pull his pants down and guess what? It was just nicked!”
Again, howls of laughter.
My father, flicking the ash off of the end of his cigarette, finished the narrative: “We just told him he’d have a good story to tell when it came to explaining how he got that scar.”
Men wiped their eyes and guffawed.
This was a reunion of the 8th Airborne Ranger Company, or what remained of it. Over the course of that weekend, the Ranger School at Fort Benning would honor them with a demonstration of modern Ranger skills and tactics. The latest generation of Rangers would rappel from helicopters, make a practice jump, and tour them around Benning, the place where 8th Company was born in 1950. And, not coincidentally, it was where I was born.
The men of 8th Company were much older now and not as lean as the men—boys, really—who appeared in the photos from 1950-51. Most carried extra weight around the middle, had the leathery skin that came with years of overexposure to the sun, and old tattoos that had purpled with age on biceps and calves that were not as hard and chiseled as they once were—but you would be wasting your breath to tell them that. Like old athletes, they spoke with as much bravado now as ever. I had to smile. It had been my privilege to be raised in the company of such men. They could be profane, and the jokes were always off-color. They were, to a man, hard-drinking and chain-smoking. They incessantly complained about the army and were fiercely proud of their part in it. Ornery and ready to fight each other, they were nonetheless ready to die for each other, too. Their vices were ever near the surface and yet, I cannot imagine where America would be without their kind.
A few members of 8th Airborne Ranger Company before a jump. So young. I don’t think a single member of the company was over the age of 27. (My father is in the middle.)
I was 20 years old and sat silently watching and listening as I so often did when my dad swapped war stories with other veterans. But this time it was different. These weren’t just any veterans; these were the men with whom he had shed blood. This would be his last reunion and it was important to him that I be there. As the son of an 8th Company Ranger, I was, like other sons, an honorary member of this very exclusive club and therefore allowed to participate on the periphery of their banter—and fetch them beer. Lots of beer. Ranger reunions were impossible without beer. And with middle-aged men, that meant frequent trips to the bathroom.
With my father away for a moment on just that sort of mission, one of his old buddies leaned in as if to tell me a secret:
“If any man was ever born to be a soldier, it was your father. Some men have an instinct for the battlefield, and he damn sure did. Absolutely the best shot I ever saw. Could hit flies at a hundred yards. And, man, he was fearless …”
My father, returning, rolled his eyes: “That’s bullshit, Mike. I was as afraid as any man.” He turned to me. “It’s as I’ve told you before, son, a man who is truly fearless will get you killed. There’s something wrong with him. His instincts don’t tell him to be afraid when he should be. You want a man on point who wants to stay alive just like you do and whose senses are telling him ‘something’s not right here’ when there’s reason to believe you’re walking into an ambush. Now Mike here was a helluva point man …”
This was all very typical. They extolled each other’s battlefield virtues, but not their own.
Just as my dad indicated, I had heard these things, this old battlefield wisdom, before. My whole life, in fact. More stories followed. More laughter, backslapping, and beer. Indeed, the cans in the center of the table began to pile up and lips became looser.
Those of us who have heard a lot of old war stories, the wives, the sons and daughters, learn to distinguish the authentic from the fictional. Because the men who did the real fighting as these men had—and I mean the really brutal, prolonged, on the ground stuff where the sight and smell of the dead forever sears memories—they don’t like to talk about the details. Not even with each other. The guy who talks casually about killing and seeing people killed? You can bet that he’s either a fraud or that combat has unhinged him. “When your dad came home from Korea,” my Uncle Larry recently told me, “he had a chest full of ribbons. He was a hero. But he wouldn’t talk about it in anything but general terms.” And nor did the rest of 8th Company who had their share of ribbons, too. The stories they told on this reunion weekend were mostly amusing, but to the veteran listener of veterans’ stories, you knew that the humor masked a horror.
All of these men dealt with the psychological wounds of war whether they ever received a Purple Heart or not. My mother tells me that my dad suffered from hideous nightmares to the day he died, a recurring one being that he had fallen into a thinly covered mass grave full of bodies in a state of decomposition. Though he fights to climb out over the bodies, the rotten flesh slides off the bones as he grips them and their flesh remained on him for days until he could bathe, a luxury not afforded to men behind enemy lines. Though he would never say, she thinks the nightmare reflected an actual occurrence. I suspect all of these men had nightmares.
Years later, as my father lay on his deathbed delirious from the heavy doses of morphine, he returned to the battlefield. I will never forget his words, a command shouted with urgency and authority: “Cover the left flank! Cover the left flank! Move! Move! Move!” The order was repeated along with something about laying down suppressive fire. Whatever battle he was in, he was reliving it and he was determined to hold the line. In that moment, I prayed that the Lord would take him. He was suffering the horror of war all over again.
The next afternoon, his chest, heaving and belabored for days, relaxed and the air left his lungs in one long sigh. My father was dead. His funeral was an anticlimax to a full and colorful life. There was no coffin draped in the American flag. There was no 21-gun salute. And no processional to Arlington National Cemetery.
On July 27, 2013, seven years to the month after his passing, the handful of surviving members of the 8th Airborne Ranger Company gathered at the Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Led once again by their former captain, James Herbert, who was now an 89-year-old retired Brigadier General, the half-dozen men sat with their wives and families. Before them stood Son Se-joo, the Consul General for the Republic of Korea, who had come to honor them:
In the face of overwhelming danger, your stories of valor and sacrifice saved our country and made it what it is today. As we pay tribute to you, I can confirm that the Korean War is not a ‘Forgotten War’ and that the victory is not a forgotten victory. The Korean people will never forget your sacrifice.
It was an honor long overdue, but too late, coming as it did sixty years after the end of the war, most of the men of 8th Company were dead. Many had died on hills with no names, only numbers, in a country that was not their own, but in defense of principles they held dear. Others died later from wounds received in battle. And still more passed away as old men, unheralded veterans of a war no one seemed to care about. Historian Thomas H. Taylor writes of 8th Ranger Company:
[Their] only tribute has been from their own post-war lives. Their collective lack of bitterness. Their forbearance from bitching about the lack of deserved recognition. This may be because they were mobilized but their nation was not. They went to war while their countrymen remained at peace. They fought, they bled, they won. Then they returned. Having given their all, they asked for nothing—and that’s just what they got.
The daring band of brothers ready for war. I love the cigarette dangling from one fellow’s lips. (My father is kneeling in the center.)
Nothing, indeed. In an interview with NBC News during that same celebratory weekend in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, radio operator E.C. Rivera spoke with great emotion about his fellow Rangers and other Korean War veterans: “Nobody gave a rat’s ass about us. Nobody cared. They [i.e., people in America] were very cold to us.” This resonates with my father’s story of a woman spitting on him and calling him a “baby killer” simply because he wore the uniform of an American soldier. So why did they volunteer? From what, exactly, did they derive satisfaction when so little gratitude was offered from those for whom they fought?
Napoleon said, “Men will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” Some men perhaps. But I never got the impression that the men of 8th Company cared about such things at all. My father certainly didn’t. As a child, I would pin his medals on my t-shirt when I played “war” with the other kids in the neighborhood. They were an impressive accessory to the old helmets and plastic guns we used in our games. It wasn’t until I was much older that it occurred to me that my dad never once objected. He never said, “Son, put those away! Don’t you know what I had to do to earn those?” I am appalled when I think of the many I lost on the playgrounds. A Bronze Star and a Purple Heart remain. But as far as he was concerned, I could use them as paperweights or to fill potholes.
For the men of 8th Ranger Company, satisfaction, I think, came elsewhere. And it is hinted at in a piece of paper I discovered in an old box in my father’s closet.
A few days after he passed away, I sat solemnly with my mother going through his things. It was a joyless task. Buried among his memorabilia was a letter from a fellow member of 8th Ranger Company, Thomas Nicholson. He had never mentioned it. It was an award of sorts, but deadly earnest, and, again, the humor here serves a purpose—it makes a terrifying memory more tolerable to recollect. It read:
“During combat operations in the Republic of South Korea, Charles Taunton bravely, but unknowingly, earned life membership in The Noble & Ancient Order of the Combat Boot…. He deserves the acclaim and friendship of all who learn that he unselfishly, and with little regard for his own safety, went behind enemy lines to assist a fellow soldier. This act of courage, which epitomizes the U.S. Army tradition of ‘never leaving an injured or deceased soldier in enemy territory,’ is worthy of great praise. Be it therefore known that I, Thomas Nicholson, was the injured soldier he carried back to friendly lines, and that it is with everlasting gratitude that I certify the truth of this citation.”
Thomas Nicholson trained at Fort Benning with the rest of the 1950 Rangers. A member of 8th Company, he was shipped along with the rest to the Korean Theater in early 1951. A month later he was shot up badly at Hill 628. Wounded and expecting to die as the battle raged around him, he sat propped against a tree, bleeding to death and holding a hand grenade. His plan was to pull the pin when the enemy that surrounded them drew near, thus killing himself and as many of the communists as possible.
But that’s not what happened.
Instead, his fellow Rangers came for him just as they came for every other wounded or dead American on that hill. They formed a spearhead, put him and the other wounded (including Captain Herbert who had been shot through the throat) in the center of that formation, and assaulted the Chinese position between them and the valley below. For more than a mile they carried their dead and wounded, laying waste to everything in their path until they reached friendly lines. Thomas Nicholson was placed on a tank and carried to safety. He would spend the next 18 months in hospitals. He never rejoined 8th Company, but he did live to become a husband and a father. He also became a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. Thirty years after the war was over, he appeared at a Ranger reunion and issued “citations” to the men responsible for his rescue. My guess is that this included every man who fought to get all of the dead and wounded off of Hill 628.
When my father spoke with pride of his war record, it was never with a medal in mind. It was not in the recollection of some heroic act or a promotion. And it wasn’t in the body count of enemy dead, a statistic of which he never spoke. If I may borrow a phrase from E.C. Rivera, my dad “didn’t give a rat’s ass” about any of that. His pride came in fighting for his country, in having the respect of the men with whom he fought, and in one simple statistic: in the history of 8th Ranger Company, they never left a man behind be he wounded or dead. Never. And if I had to bet, I would wager that the rest of the men in this remarkable company shared those sentiments.
Perhaps that explains why my father’s mind went back to a specific moment in battle as death, the only enemy he could neither defeat nor escape, closed in on him. Even in dying, the men of the 8th Airborne Ranger Company maneuvered to defend:
“Cover the left flank! Cover the left flank! Move! Move! Move!”
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For today’s song, I link to one more of my father’s favorites and a favorite of many of his generation. Whatever the degree of his hatred for Jane Fonda—which was substantial—he loved this female singer in equal measure. Enjoy.