Monday, February 22, 2010

Another Good Man Takes His Place in Memory

Saturday February 20th 2010 marked the passing of General Alexander Haig, who many remember only for his faux pas statement following the attempt on President Regan’s life in 1981.

My memory is from an entirely different prospective.

First time I ever laid eyes on the man was in 1966 at a place called Dian, Republic of Vietnam. Dian was Division Headquarters for the 1st Infantry Divison, The Big Red One. I was a Sp4 and at the time door gunner on the helicopter used by Major General William E. DePuy. Al Haig was a LTC on the General’s staff and frequently accompanied General DePuy into the field or visits to outlying units.

It is difficult to explain to someone who has not been there but at the higher command levels in a combat unit, in a combat situation there can be lots of stress. The majority of the stress is self imposed mostly by lower ranking staff who seek to make it to the next level. An insider can observe quite a range of behavior among these officers ranging from total competence to various levels of ass kissing to make up for inadequacies. For a period of about 7 months, although I was a lowly SP4 I had the opportunity to observe much of what went on inside the 1st Division. General DePuy, new to the Division changed many of the ways the top staff operated upon his arrival because frankly in my opinion the division was not achieving its full potential under General Seaman. Bear in mind these impressions are from the mindset of an 18 year old enlisted man who needed hero’s.

At some point Sergeant Major Woolridge, the Division Sergeant Major who almost always accompanied General DePuy, brought a PRC25 radio and gave it to me, saying that I was to double as the General’s radio operator since I was doing nothing while the helicopter was on the ground. Where ever we landed in the field I would grab the radio and stay close to the General in case he wanted the radio. My call sign was Danger 77 Zulu or just 77 Zulu was enough to get anyone’s attention on the net as General DePuy’s call sign was 77.

From this perspective, I personally witnessed General DePuy and General Hollingsworth (one of our Brigade commanders) relieve commanders on the spot for failing to perform. It was far more entertaining when it was General Hollingsworth because of his “colorful” language, the man cussed like a sailor which takes nothing away from his ability as he was most capable and a true warrior sprit is possessed by no man if not General Hollingsworth. Throughout this time staff and unit commanders were replaced as General DePuy honed his Division into an effective and deadly force.

One of those who not only survived but excelled was LTC Haig. A cooler head never wore the Big Red One patch. My contact with him was frequent but brief contacts and always left me feeling good. Competence and loyalty were absolute requirements to maintain and progress in General DePuy’s staff. Al Haig must have possessed those qualities as our G2 because he got a field command leading the 26th Blue Spaders later and he excelled there as well. I was long gone by that time but had an opportunity to find out a bit about what happened many years later.

Many things happen over the course of 30 years and 30years after all the above I was flying a 747 between Hong Kong and Los Angles. General DePuy had passed away a year or so before this particular flight.

Just before going on break I looked over my passenger manifest and noticed Alexander Haig listed in first class. During my break I went downstairs to the first class section which was quiet and dark. Most of the passengers were sleeping and the purser was talking to a gentleman in the galley. We exchanged some pleasantries and I mentioned having known General Haig from Vietnam, and that I wanted to ask him if he knew what happened to General DePuy as to the cause of his death. The gentleman, who was still in the galley asked, “you were in the first Division?” I replied in the affirmative and told him of my job with General DePuy, to which he replied “My God, I’m Woody, I was General Haig’s assistant when he was G2 for General DePuy, small world.” We went into long discussion as old soldiers will about “hey what happened to so and so.” And, “Remember this guy and that guy they did this or that.” Before too long I got to the purpose of why I wanted to speak to General Haig about what happened to General DePuy, but because the General was asleep I did not want to disturb him with my question. Woody said “no, I am sure he would love to talk to you.” He went forward to the General’s seat woke him, and after a brief discussion he came back to the galley and said “He is awake now and would be happy to talk with you.”

As I approached his seat the General stuck out his hand called me by my first name and said “sit down, let’s talk about Bill.” I was a little nervous because of what this man had accomplished but he immediately put me at ease and our conversation was quite lengthy and very candid. He told me about General DePuy’s illness and how he had visited him in the hospital and his feelings toward the General from a very personal perspective. We went into other subjects and what he was doing at the time and yes even the time he was briefly “in charge” of the country. There was a bit of laughter and moments of serious silence and mutual respect. We talked about his days in command of the 26th Infantry. He gave me a general briefing of what occurred in Vietnam after my departure. In the end I left Alexander Haig as every time previously, feeling good.

Some may question how a man, so fierce a warrior, whose ideals and standards are born of war and conflict can become a statesman and work towards peaceful solutions in a world full of opposing factions. My opinion is, why should we not embrace this type of leader because he above all understands sacrifice, loyalty and the true cost of war.

General Alexander Haig was a loyal man until the end, loyal to his friends and his country and that’s how I will remember him. You simply cannot summarize a life so full of contributions to his nation with a 5 second sound bite.

No comments:

Post a Comment