As should have been clear from my last blog post, I LOVED living and working in Germany. At that point of my career, though, I was far from the best Army Officer. We had an incredible group of Officer and Enlisted leaders in the 2/59 Air Defense Artillery Battalion. In my Battery alone, I can point to spectacular officers, such as John Warnke, Earnie Harris, Jeff Bergenthal, Mike Sullivan, and Ken Busse. A few others were closer to the bottom of the barrel, which made me look pretty good in comparison! There were so many other great officers in the Batallion (including: Charlie Gulac, Tim Eno, Lonnie Buff, Ben Cubitt, Lee VanBrederode, Mike Steves, Mark Borreson, Joel Oguete, Mark Carlson, Randy Wuerz, Arturo Thiele-Sardina, Ray Iram, Greg Marinich, Art Earl, Carlos Solari, Tim Tritch, and MANY others) in our small unit that I could point to, so it seems to me so many years later that I was clearly a “middle of the road” Lieutenant.
The people I really looked up to were our Battalion Commander, Jack Costello (who went on to retire as a 3-star General), his wife Mickey, my Battery Commander, John Warnke, my sponsor, Ken Busse, and my Platoon Sergeant Ted Fisher. In so many ways I was dragged along by the above just enough to become a serviceable Platoon Leader, as the Army life did not come naturally to me. I think I described this in more detail in an earlier blog post. Anyway, I followed the example of these and other fine Soldiers to get my footing.
My first introduction to the “real” Army was shortly after we moved into our apartment on Bad Strasse. We didn’t have our phone installed yet (about a six week wait in those days). We were woken suddenly VERY early one morning by an annoying buzzer that kept ringing in the hallway of our apartment. It was Ken Busse pushing the buzzer at the gate. I picked up the intercom and Ken explained that the unit had an alert – and that our platoons needed to be loaded up and ready in less than an hour. I had no car, so Ken had to wait for me to get dressed as quickly as I could.
“Lariat Advance” was the code word for a full alert for the troops stationed in West Germany during the Cold War. We simply called it an alert. Alerts occurred about once per month and were generally hated events, mostly because they typically occurred around 3AM. We never knew when they were going to happen, but there were always rumors of an upcoming alert. That was nearly as bad as the alert since you could hardly sleep the night of a rumored alert.
I don’t remember the precise timeline, but the standard procedure for an alert was to get full accountability of all our unit personnel within one hour of the initial kick-off. We then had another hour to get our equipment loaded onto our vehicles and lined up to depart the back gate of our small Kaserne. Some of the tasks during that second hour were: issuing weapons and gas masks to every Soldier, obtaining communication encryption codes, and Operations Order briefings that went first to the Battery Commanders from the Battalion Commander, then from the Battery Commanders to Platoon Leaders, and finally from the Platoon Leaders to the Squad Leaders (or simply to the entire Platoon). The typical instructions were to proceed via “road march” (i.e., riding in our tactical vehicles/weapon system to our nearby Basic Load Storage Area. We would stage our vehicles in the woods and in sequence load our full compliment of weapon systems. For us, that meant guided missile systems for the Chaparral and Stinger teams and 20mm basic load for the Vulcan anti-aircraft guns.
By mid-morning we normally got an “ENDEX,” which meant that the alert was over. Sometimes, though, the alert lasted a day or longer. In at least one case I remember that it kicked off a week-long exercise that we didn’t know was coming. This obviously also put stress on our families, who had no idea when we would be home.
We went to the field for extended times fairly regularly. Honestly, I didn’t love it, but those were the times when you really got to exercise your leadership skills. You got to put into action the various battle drills that your team ran through on an almost daily basis. It was in the field where you could really excel. I remember some great times while in the field, but there were many downsides, such as: sleeping in a cold cot, not getting much sleep (see a pattern about what I DON’T like?!), no showers, no bathrooms, and always being on the move. There was absolutely no downtime, or at least very little. I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like my job as a Platoon Leader. I did. I just didn’t like things like alerts, Staff Duty, and extended field duty. I enjoyed the daily work with our platoons on maintenance and training. I truly loved working with Soldiers and Non-Commissioned Officers. There was a whole lot about the job that I loved, but like any job, certainly not all.
Another hated task was serving as Staff Duty Officer (SDO) about once per month. We needed to have multiple people on duty 24/7. Each Battery had a enlisted CQ (Charge of Quarters) and an assistant stationed near the unit headquarters. They kept watch over their respective areas overnight. The SDO was tasked to check up on the Battery locations throughout the night. This included a regular patrol route through each of the Battery areas, their motor pools, the arms room, our Basic Load Storage Area (BLSA), and other areas of high security. We had a Noncommissioned Officer (NCO) who was assigned the duty for several months at a time, so they really ran things, but the Staff Duty Officer was the Commander’s representative and took the brunt of anything that went wrong. The NCO worked nights regularly as their only job, but the SDO signed in after the normal workday was complete and was on duty throughout the night. On a good day, we might catch a few winks on a couch at some point during the night, but it was always an interrupted sleep. The only good thing was getting the day off (normally) once you were relieved of duty that morning.
As indicated above, field duty was a part of life in the 1st Armored Division. As my Air Defense Artillery Battalion supported the Division, when they went to the field, so did we. It was in the field that I learned NOT to like camping. We rarely slept well. Our radios squawked all night long, so even with a night-shift radioman, we were often up trying to figure out the various messages. It was when we were in the field that two very important moments in my life occurred. The first was in May of 1986. I got a radio message from our headquarters very early that morning. The message was, “the stork is coming.” That wasn’t some sort of coded message, but it was confirmation that my son was soon to be born. I had to quickly disengage and get myself back home if I wanted to be there to witness the birth. Fortunately, we were not far away and I made it back in plenty of time.
The second important event was during an extended field exercise at the Hohenfels Training Area in Bavaria. This was in October of 1987. My home team, the Minnesota Twins, were in the World Series against the heavily favored St. Louis Cardinals. The games were on the Armed Forces Network, both television and radio. Since we were in the field, though, I had no access to television. My only access to games was radio. Unfortunately, all but one of the games were night games. Due to the time difference, that would have been in the wee hours of the morning. Given the little sleep I already had, there was no way I could even think about listening to the games. Instead, I had to rely on the AFN morning news or finding one of the few copies of the Stars and Stripes morning newspapers that made it out to the field.
On Saturday, October 24, 1987, the Twins returned to the Metrodome for Game 6. They were down in the series 3 games to 2. If they lost Game 6, it was over. Fortunately, that game was an afternoon game in the Twin Cities. Therefore, it wasn’t TOO late for me to catch at least part of the game. The Twins trailed until the bottom of the fifth inning when they clawed out a one-run lead. It was pretty late in Germany, but I couldn’t even think about sleeping. Then came the sixth inning. Kent Hrbek stepped to the plate with bases loaded and hit a grand slam! I was elated! With a five-run lead I felt I could finally turn off the game and get some sleep. Oh, and for Game 7, unfortunately I could not even catch the start of the game, but from Hohenfels, Germany, that Game 6 was magical to this long suffering fan!
Whenever we came home from the field, most wives had us undress outside our front doors. Yes, we smelled that bad. Our unit had no women, so there was NEVER much considerations for showers while in the field. I remember one time when I was on the Battalion staff that I actually got a shower at a sportsplatz, but that was the exception. In the winter, things seemed even worse. We seemed to spend more time just keeping our Soldiers warm and fed than accomplishing anything related to the mission. It was a treat to head to higher headquarters where there was almost always a toasty hot tent. The best mechanic was the guy who had a knack with vehicle heaters. Whoever that was quickly became my primary driver! Even then, it isn’t easy to keep a ragtop Jeep warm.
Besides the above exiting events that occurred during field exercises, two of my most memorable field experiences related to getting stuck. One earned me a nickname and the other brought me great appreciation for German farmers. The first was when we had a hard time finding a bridge over a small creek that would accommodate the weight of our vehicles. I had a string of five tracked vehicles and we couldn’t find a bridge without detouring several miles out of our way. Because of the difficulty keeping our tracked vehicles running, we avoided putting any extra miles on them. So, I decided that we would ford the stream where there was a rather gentle bank. The first Chapparal crossed the stream without too much difficulty. It did have some trouble, though, on its entry out of the water onto the bank. I directed the next vehicle to come at more of a diagonal route to provide a cleaner lift out of the water. Bad idea. We had a general idea of the depth of the water, but didn’t know how solid the creek bed was. The diagonal route took the Chapparal into a mucky bottom and it got stuck. Stuck bad!
Sergeant Johnson was my bad luck Squad Leader. Sure enough, it was his vehicle stuck in the mud. As a good leader should, I took all blame for getting him stuck. After a time it was clear that we might have to call a wrecker. That would cause just about everyone in the Battalion to know that I screwed up. Captain Warnke happened to come by as we were trying to figure things out. I think he tried to chew me out, but he couldn’t stop laughing. He even had me wade out to the sunken vehicle and snapped a photo that got shared throughout the unit. He also dubbed me, “Admiral Grayson,” a nickname that stuck for a while.
The second mud incident occurred during a reconnaissance of an area that the Battery would be occupying during a field exercise in Southeast Germany. It was springtime and the forest roads were terrible. They weren’t exactly roads, but were tractor trails through the woods. This time it wasn’t me with the bravado, but my driver who insisted that he could easily navigate the ruts. I was then the Battery Executive Officer, so this was after my earlier encounter with the creek. This time I was smart enough to make sure that no one found out about it. Also, we were over an hour drive from home and it would have been a long night if we had to call back to our unit for help.
My driver and I walked to a nearby farmhouse with the idea that perhaps his small field tractor could pull us from the mud. Our Chevy Blazer (we had recently upgraded from Jeeps) had bottomed out in deep, muddy ruts. The farmer came to investigate and chained his tractor to the vehicle. After several mighty tugs, it was clear that our vehicle was even more stuck than we thought. In my mind I started going through how this time might just torpedo my career. Suddenly, the farmer told us to hop on his tractor. He pulled up to his barn and opened the door. Inside was a HUGE tractor with wheels about eight feet high! That thing could have pulled our Chapparal out of the river by itself. It had no problem pulling our SUV out of the mud and we were soon on our way. My driver kept his word and that story never got out!
Other adventures were even more exciting. The highlight had to be the three trips to Crete. That was the only location in Europe where we could fire live missiles. It was quite a treat to spend a couple of weeks there each Summer, but it wasn’t all for fun. In addition to the missile firing, we were evaluated on our jobs. As I indicated in my last blog, that first year my Platoon came in dead last. Not just in the Battalion, but in the entire European theater. We had work to do. My Platoon Sergeant, SFC Fisher, squad leaders SSG Rivera, SSG Harrell, SGT Clapp, and SGT Johnson worked hard all year with the idea of redeeming ourselves the following year. When CPT Warnke asked if I wanted to try a different job, I declined. Nope, I said, I want to take THIS Platoon back to Crete and win! That we did. We achieved the top score in Europe that Summer. Redemption was ours! I couldn’t have been prouder of my team. We celebrated drinking ouzo in the port town of Chania and enjoyed the many sites on the island (yes, that included trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to keep our Soldiers away from the nude beaches!).
Only about half of our Battalion got to participate in the Crete trips. The rest comprised of the Vulcan weapon system teams and our radar operators. Instead of Crete, they conducted their gunnery twice per year on a small NATO base in Northern Germany, just outside the small town of Todendorf. We fired the Vulcans 20mm shells over the Baltic Sea. I only experienced it once, but it was a treat. To get there, though, we first had the tedious task of railheading our tracked Vulcan vehicles from Schwabach to Todendorf, together with the tedious “freight” train travel schedule. Once in Todendorf, though, we worked hard and played hard.
One of the signature events during each Todendorf trip was the unit dinner at a local restaurant. Two traditions were shots of rusty nail, which are unlike any rusty nail drinks I have ever seen in the United States, and the “boot.” I think the rusty nail consisted mostly of Tabasco and probably Vodka. It was deadly, both the night of and the whole following day! I am aware of only one person who refused to drink one and survived. The other tradition was the passing of the boot. This is more of a traditional German drinking game. The trick was to tap the table in some sort of sequence and then take a guzzle from a two-liter glass boot. If you got the sequence wrong, you drank a rusty nail. If not, you passed the boot to the guy next to you. Whoever got the first bubble from the foot of the boot had to guzzle the remainder. Good clean fun! Unfortunately, there were a whole lot of hangovers the following morning!
The best part of Todendorf for me was that after the firing and evaluations were over, we got the following day off. Many of the Soldiers slept and had a lazy day in Todendorf. The adventurous types hopped a ferry to Copenhagen. Since I’d never been to Denmark, I jumped at the opportunity. I still remember so much of that trip. The marvelous Tivoli gardens, wonderful food, beautiful women, and sights unlike those we saw in Germany. At one bar part of our small group got a visit from the reigning “Miss Denmark,” who wanted to practice her English. All in all, it was a fun day and a great way to wrap up a long week.
Yes, there are more hijinks from that first tour in Germany, but those will have to wait until my next blog!