Monday, January 31, 2011

Camp Shelby, MS

I got this great story from Mike McCormick last week. It isn't the type of story I had thought about when I was thinking of stories for this blog. I don't mean it doesn't fit; it certainly does and is a terrific story. What I mean is it isn't a story that came to mind for me when I was trying to think of stories. This story is more about Papa than a story he would have told, although he had plenty of stories from this trip. The other thing is that this trip had so many stories that are mine that I often forget that there were Papa stories from that time.

Mike asked me to add some details and dates as appropriate. I'll add what I can at the end. Before we start though, the name of the training site is Camp Shelby (famous from the Neil Simon play / Mathew Brodrick film Biloxi Blues). I'm going to have to do some more research on the dates, but I'm pretty sure it was 1991.

"The year of our NG summer camp in Mississippi, Papa was the CO of the signal battalion which was participating in a large Army radio network training operation that stretched from our site in Mississippi all the way over to Florida. My team of about 5 enlisted rank soldiers and myself (NCO) were actually on the remote site which was the very western end of the entire radio network. We had been camped back out in the woods on our own for a week or so while each separate element of the radio net worked to get their equipment up and running so they could each plug in the network and achieve the mission. Our stuff was working fine so after setting up our 75’ antenna, camouflaging the tents and trucks, and tuning in the radios, all we mostly just had to make sure the generators had fuel and nobody got bitten by any snakes.

Since we were in such a remote location, there was little chance of any brass showing up, we had a fair amount of unsupervised freedom, which myself and the guys in my team really enjoyed. Naps were plentiful, shorts and gym shoes in lieu of full uniforms, card games, and touch football ruled the day. A couple of times a day chow was brought out to us, and the fuel truck would make a delivery every few days. Bill, you remember you stopped by a few times, I think mostly just to get a break from the stress of the main company encampment.

We were fortunate to have assigned to us a pickup truck, which we used to take turns running down to the barracks for showers or to head into the nearby town for supplies. We had set up a Coleman gas camping stove and had a small refrigerator running off of the electricity from the generators. So we were turning down our noses at the “food” brought cold and soggy to us from the mess tent and mostly eating cereal and sandwiches and cooking on the stove. We also laid in a nice supply of cold pop, mostly RC which as you know was Papas favorite at the time.

Late one night near the end of the camp, Papa and his driver come down to our site from the road. As this was a unexpected visit from the Colonel, the guys with me panicked a bit. They only knew him as the hard charging boss of the battalion, and were worried that we were in some kind of trouble as we were not really following strict Army regulations and it was a very rare occurrence for the top man to show up unannounced. However, I took one look at him and could see that he was pretty much bushed out, as it had been a long and hard camp, and he had been pushing hard to get the battalion up to speed and complete the mission. This coupled with the late night, the excessive Mississippi heat and humidity, along with a butt load of mud (more on that later) and he was worn out.

I’ll never forget the big smile he cracked when I offered him an ice cold RC and then made up a thick salami sandwich on fresh French bread for him. He stayed with us for few hours, telling Army and Police stories and marveling that we had it so good on our little remote site way back in the woods. He had stopped by because he had wanted to talk over the radio net from our site at one far end all the way to the other end in Florida. I can’t recall if that happened that night, but I do know for sure that but after he took his leave of us, the guys in my team couldn’t stop talking for the rest of the camp about what a great guy he was and how much they enjoyed having that personal time with him.

I still marvel at the way he had turned their anxious concern for the reason for his visit and their trepidation of dealing face-to-face with the Colonel into such a positive and well meaning encounter for them. His innate leadership and natural ability to relate fairly and evenly to one and all, and his ability to inspire and provide confidence to them, caused all of them to regard him highly and to have complete loyalty and faith in his command for the rest of their time in the battalion. And all of this when he was completely worn out and tired, but never out of patience.


p.s. This was the summer camp with the unbelievable mud, when trucks and jeeps were getting stuck all the time. The wrecker never got a break pulling them free from the muck. One day in the Charlie Company area Papa and his driver were in his SUV sitting on top of a large hill (really a small cliff) that dominated the site. He instructed his driver to head down to the lower main area of the company site and instead of backing around and coming down the gravel road she just plunged the SUV over the edge of the hill (cliff) and they bounced and banged all the way down. He was terrified that the SUV was going to roll over and they’d be crushed or at least busted up and trapped. They made it ok, those old Army SUV’s were pretty tough. The guys standing at the bottom of the hill that he wanted to speak with couldn’t imagine what was so important that the Colonel would drop in on them like that."

I have more stories, the Blue Mud, the Ride Home from Shelby with the Most Expensive Driver in the Army, My Bordello Office, and the Battalion Formation God Canceled. I will share those another time.

What I can add to Mike's story is that I was at the main site and my job, as a brand new Second Lieutenant, was to supervise the engineering of the signal "shots." Our equipment was Korean War vintage and the signal they used was very narrow so that the antennas had to be pointed directly at each other to get the signal. All the signals shooting from and to our company were coordinated by my office. By office I mean the big aluminum box on the back of a 2.5 ton truck.

The time of the story I got on my radio and called Mike's site to see how things were going and much to my surprise, the Old Man (in more ways than one) was on the horn! He said he was going to sit there all night until the shot got in to Florida. That was just about the time I was supposed to hand over the controls to my NCO so I could get some sleep, but I suppose you can guess that I didn't. The shot never did get in, but there was a certain amount of extra emphasis that night.

Not to nit pick, but Papa was a Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) at the time, not yet a full Colonel (COL).

BTW, the SUVs referenced were Chevy Blazers stripped of any comforts, given diesel engines and painted matte green. There is a little more to that cliff story that I will tell in a future post, but I will end this post with one more detail: I was the guy at the bottom end of that hill.

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