Meeting the 2/5 Sgt Major

After my heat stroke, May 11, 1969, I was confined to my H 2/5 An Hoa billet to rest for four weeks.  After five days of doing nothing, I was going crazy.  I would go walking outside my tent and walk around, although I was restricted to my tent billet.  The only thing inside of the hot billet was cots lined up on two sides with five feet of space between the cots.  The side windows were canvas, so they were rolled up most of the time.

I asked any NCO or officer around the place I ran into if I could help them in any way.  I figured if I did only mental work to help and no physical labor, I’d at least be of help to someone and not get yelled at for doing any physical work.  After a day or two of observing how things were working around the Hotel Company rear area, I found that no one was paying any attention to the mail piling up.  It was piling up and not getting distributed because no one really knew where people were at.  Most were out in the bush, some were medivaced out of country, some in hospitals, some on R&R, some like me displaced temporarily.

Some mail was piling up, especially the small packages that came in the mail.  Mail was always a high military priority as it was the only link a soldier had to his life back home.  The Marine Corps works very, very, VERY hard to deliver mail from home to deployed troops because it’s important for morale.  If there was any weakness in the time link it took to get mail distributed to its person was with us combat troops due to when resupply helicopters could get in and out due to inclement weather or/and safety due to enemy fire power.  We used new recruits to carry out the mail, re-supply helicopters, the battalion Chaplin, and the S1 guys going into the field to transport the mail.

Once mail was sent out to the bush, no one wanted to carry the excess mail or packages for undelivered return mail.  So, the mail began to sit for a few days and a week or more for packages before it got sorted or passed out.  I jumped in and began sorting the mail and asking where so and so was at.  Some pieces of mail for a few guys had been sitting around for over a month.  They weren’t with their company any longer.  A few guys were on R&R, some guys were in prison or jail.  Some were KIA.  Some were still in a hospital in Da Nang.  Some guys had been reassigned from one company to another when they got back from R&R or from being medivaced, and their mail didn’t get to them.

I took it upon myself to begin talking with the corpsmen/doctors, food staff, supply guys, the Chaplin and everyone else and began compiling a list of names of guys who had mail getting old and trying to determine where these guys were so I could get their mail forwarded to them.

This passion to get the mail out to the guys went on for three weeks and during that time, the Sargent Major in charge of the 2/5 battalion, took notice of what I was doing!  I had never met the Sgt Major and didn’t know who he was.

I was minding my own business on May 26th sorting out the mail and getting bundles of mail to go out into the field when a Sgt Major with a cane walked up to me.  I said, good afternoon, sir.  I knew he was a Sgt Major, but I didn’t know his name or who he was.  He looked at me and said, “hurry and get this done, we are moving out to Phu Loc 6 tomorrow”.  Then he walked away.  A moment later, he turned around and asked me, “Did you play a trombone or some sort of brass instrument when you were in high school?”   I told him “Yes” and he walked away whistling.  I had no idea at that time what that conversation was all about.

That same afternoon, I got about 10 mail bags of letters and packages loaded and tagged and got them down to the airstrip where I caught the last late afternoon resupply helicopter about to take resupplies out to our troops.  I grabbed a meal at the mess hall and spoke to a corporal who was sitting at my table eating about my weird one-way conversation with a Sgt Major.  Three other guys sitting also at the table let me know that it must have been Sgt Major Clifford Burks from 2/5 that spoke to me.  Sgt Majors don’t go around talking to PFC’s!  Why would he tell me we were going to Phu Loc 6 tomorrow?  And why did he ask me if I ever played a trombone?

The next morning after rollcall, (there were about 8 of us from Hotel Company present and accounted for in An Hoa, with the rest of the company out in the Arizona Territory) I was called out and told to report to the 2/5 CP (Command Post).  The other seven from Hotel company reported to an NCO.

A lieutenant at the CP told me to grab all my gear and stand over there by a jeep that was parked nearby.  I didn’t have any gear.  I was still recovering from my heat stroke and placed on restricted duty.  Shortly, the Sgt Major came out of the supply hut next to the CP bunker with his jeep driver carrying a helmet, flak jacket, and an M-16 with ammo and handed them to me.  The driver of the jeep, a guy my age, told me to get into the backseat of the jeep.  The LCpl jeep driver told me not to ask any questions and to keep my mouth shut unless I was asked a direct question.  Sgt Major Clifford Burks climbed into the front passenger seat of the jeep, and we drove out the gate and got into the convoy on Liberty Road, headed for Phu Loc 6.  This was the weirdest thing.  Everyone else was either riding on an Amtrack or walking all the way to Phu Loc 6.  I assumed that maybe I got a special ride because I was still recovering from my heat stroke.

While riding along in the convoy, after the Sgt Major gave his jeep driver some instructions, he then turned back to address me in the backseat and said, “your new name is ‘Lucky’ “.  That’s all he said.  He turned back around and started talking on the radio handset.  I thought about that for a few minutes.  Lucky?  Lucky, I got a heat stroke?  Then it dawned on me that if I hadn’t had been medivaced when I was, I would have been with those three guys along with my radio.  I was sick to my stomach.   I wanted to throw up.  I fought back the tears.  The Sgt Major noticed my emotions.  I swallowed hard.  Burks said, “you’re alright son.  You will be on light duty for a few more weeks recovering from your near-death experience with the heat stroke.   We are stopping overnight at Liberty Bridge but at 0700 hours, we are going to Da Nang. I’m dropping you off there for two weeks.  I’ve got something for you to do.”

I kept my mouth shut and asked no questions, just like the advice I had received.  But, when I got alone with the Sgt Major’s driver, I asked him, where he was taking me?  What assignment did he have for me?  He told me that he didn’t know except that the Sgt Major had to visit someone in Da Nang that was in the brig and wanted me to go along.  I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, but I did take a moment to think about it, if I was going to be court marshaled and thrown into the brig?  I don’t think I had done anything wrong.

After being on the road in a convoy for 2.5 hours, we arrived at the Da Nang 1st Marine Division Band facility.  After the jeep stopped, Sgt Major Burks said, “I’ll be back to get you in about 12 days.  Make me proud and learn those music notes!”  I stood there with my gear and said “Yes, Sir.”  as the jeep drove away.  I walked into the building there and met the Major of the 1st Marine Corps Division Band.  I had no idea what was going on.  I told the major that I was just dropped off by my Sgt Major from 2/5.  He said, “ya, ya, Burks called me about a week ago and asked if I still had that new bugle I received from the states”.  “He told me that he had a new battalion bugler coming to get it and to teach him the bugle calls.”  “Congratulations son, you are the new 2/5 battalion bugler!”  I was in shock.  I asked the Major if I could speak.  “of course!” he said.

“There must be some mistake, I’ve never played a bugle”, I said.  I played a trombone for five years in school in the marching band.  The major, who’s name I can’t recall, started to laugh, and said, “I know Burks, “He wouldn’t know the difference from a bugle, a trumpet, a trombone, or a tuba”.  “I guess you’ve got a lot of work to do to get that lip in shape to play that bugle.”

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