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July Military Stories (July 12, 14 & 16)

Monday, July 12, 2021

Bill Caldwell Survives Korea’s Darkest Hours

Columbus Connections: A Collection of Wartime Stories by Lynn Willoughby (2007)

When the North Korean communists invaded South Korea in June 1950, the American forces in the Pacific were ill equipped for the brutal conflict that ensued. Bill Caldwell’s regiment, then an occupation force of conquered Japan, was among the first forces committed to combat in Korea. Bill’s regiment had no tank company and virtually no anti-tank capability. Half of his battalion’s weapons had been condemned two months earlier; and much of their ammunition, which had been in storage in Okinawa since the last war, had deteriorated.

Symbolizing their ragtag state of preparedness, American troops arrived in the port of Pusan in an old Japanese hospital ship still bearing its red medical cross on July 2, 1950. Eighteen days later, on Bill’s twenty-fifth birthday and his first wedding anniversary, Bill’s division was decimated; its commander, General William Dean, was subsequently captured and held as a prisoner of war for the duration of the conflict.

In the melee, Bill and others from several different units were cut off from the rest of the American force. As these 180 stranded men regrouped in the mountains, they found themselves with no communications with the main force, no maps to find their way back to their lines, no food or water, and with only the ammunition they carried. Aware that an enemy force was moving down the next valley, they proceeded southward slowly, carrying their wounded with them. For the next four days they trudged on, hoping to find Americans or South Koreans who could aid them, going thirsty and eating raw whatever they could unearth from the farmer’s fields.

Lieutenant Caldwell and Captain “Micky” Marks, a World War II Eighty-second Airborne Division veteran, were the two officers in the best physical and emotional shape of the group. They had been the prime movers in leading and maneuvering the 180 soldiers. Now they volunteered to scout for help. With security posted, Caldwell and Marks departed after dark. The following morning near Kuonjin, they came upon a South Korean headquarters where they were able to borrow a couple of trucks to shuttle the rest of their group down from the mountains. The South Koreans had no rations to give them, but they were able to contact the Eighth Army. Unfortunately, the Eighth Army was in no position to help them return to their units. Command ordered them to get back any way they could.

Caldwell and others commandeered a train to Yosu, on the southern coast. It was there that the soldiers got their first bit of food and liquid in five days. Villagers gave them enough eggs to equal two per man with a bottle of beer for each of them and a pint of sake per platoon. They boiled the eggs in the boiler of a steam engine and passed them out to everyone with the beer and a swallow of sake. Then they commandeered a boat and sailed east about fifty miles to the port of Pusan, where their ordeal had begun a few weeks earlier. There, the Eighth Army reequipped them.

Caldwell’s group continued to fight in heavy action for the balance of July and August. Of the battalions that made up the Thirty-fourth Infantry Regiment arriving in Korea on July 2, 1950, only 168 men of the original 1,968 remained by the end of August 1950.

Survivors left in Korea with boosted confidence in their abilities as soldiers, and as men. Caldwell went on to a distinguished and decorated career, retiring as a major general. Looking back on those years in Korea, he now sees how profoundly they shaped the rest of his life. In his words, “After Korea, you knew you could do anything. We had tackled the very worst that could ever happen.”


Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Ken Leuer, Father of the Modern-Day Rangers, Still Taking Care of Details

Columbus Connections: A Collection of Wartime Stories by Lynn Willoughby (2007)

At the close of the Vietnam War, the American military force was in shambles. Morale was low; desertions were high. Determined to remedy this situation, General Creighton W. Abrams, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, decided to invigorate and enlarge the elite fighting force known as the Rangers, which had been used on a limited basis in wartime since World War II. Abrams gave Lt. Col. Ken Leuer a charter to organize, train, and prepare for mission deployment an Infantry battalion that would be the “gold medal” unit for the world.

With an unlimited budget and his pick of 650 officers and enlisted men, Leuer set about to create the First Ranger Battalion of the Seventy-fifth Infantry Regiment. He developed the equipment requirements they would need, and with his non-coms and officers, he co-authored a statement known today as the Ranger Creed. Ken understood the creed was more than a “pocket full of words;” it was a model for living, training, and fighting. He required all his men to recite it on command, and with time it became the centerpiece of an invigorated Army, inspiring all to a higher standard of excellence.

It may have been Leuer’s experience in commanding a battalion in Vietnam that had impressed Abrams enough to charge him with creating the modern rangers. In 1971, Leuer and his battalion were dropped onto the infamous firebase “Tomahawk.” Every April for the previous two years the base had been overrun (and in one case the battalion commander killed) because of its many security deficiencies.

Leuer had just begun to address the many problems there when he received a call on a Sunday morning that General Dolvin, Abrams, and Tarpley would be paying him a visit that very afternoon. General Abrams was visibly upset by the conditions he found at the camp. He particularly complained about the “tanglefoot” wire surrounding the high ground of the firebase was loose. This condition could enable the enemy to lift it high enough to crawl under and surprise the battalion. Leuer acknowledged that the tanglefoot needed tightening, and he vowed he would take care of it. He assured the general, “Everything in this base is going to be right.”

Two weeks later, General Dolvin showed up to inspect the tanglefoot and found it had been corrected. Leuer later learned that Abrams had told Dolvin to give Leuer two weeks to correct the problems, and if he had not done so, to relieve him. Leuer saved his rank and his future by “taking care of the details,” and this emphasis became his signature. Realizing that “it doesn’t come easy and it goes fast,” he established a training system for firebase units that took advantage of the many hours of down time in combat by creating a curriculum of training that addressed on-site conditions. By increasing confidence in his men’s abilities to do their jobs, Leuer increased morale.

Later, Leuer became an especially efficient commanding general at Fort Benning because he continued to “take care of details” and “check the checker.” He insisted that all competence standards be measurable so that it was clear whether a soldier had met them or not. While at Benning in 1987-1988, Major General Leuer finalized the fighting doctrine that was exhibited in Desert Storm. He introduced several training initiatives that were implemented worldwide with resulting reduction in training costs and improved proficiency.

After retirement, Leuer decided to stay in Columbus because it “felt like home.” Today, he has lived here longer than any other place on earth. He became the first chairman of the modern National Infantry Association, and he chaired the board of the National Ranger Memorial Foundation, which erected the Ranger Memorial. For ten years, Leuer steered the Chattahoochee Valley’s Goodwill Industries, Inc. through a slump in efficiency until he had transformed it into a successful multi-million-dollar enterprise. Leuer feels he has “earned his spurs” as a citizen of Columbus and he has done so with pride.


Friday, July 16, 2021

John Allen on the Front Lines of the Sixties

Columbus Connections: A Collection of Wartime Stories by Lynn Willoughby (2007)

In the tumultuous 1960s, this nation focused on two battlegrounds at once – civil rights agitation and the Vietnam War. John Allen found himself on the front lines of both. In 1965, he was among the Montgomery crowd who took part in the famous march from Selma for the cause of voting rights, and while in college, he marched in another civil rights demonstration in Tuskegee.

Life handed Allen’s age group the opportunity to become social pioneers, for they were to be the first group of African American youth to break out of a segregated world and become successful in the white mainstream. But in the process, Allen found that the part of a trail blazer is often steep.

Graduating as a Distinguished Military Graduate from Tuskegee Institute’s ROTC program in 1966, John decided to join the Air Force. Then he thought to himself, “Well, if I’m going into the Air Force, I might as well fly.” He was proud of the fact that one of his fighter pilot trainings took place at the same field used by the famed Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.

Emerging from an all-Black college, he landed in an environment where he was in the distinct minority. Of the four hundred men in his pilot training class, there were only about thirteen African Americans, and half of that number washed out. So, the little band of Black trainees stuck together for moral support whenever they could. Everything in the white world seemed foreign to them. One of the came out of the toilet one day whispering, “How did these white folks get blue water in their latrines?”

When he arrived in Southeast Asia, Allen was one of only two African American pilots on his base in Thailand and also in his squadron. Doing well in this environment required having a lot of confidence, even though the Air Force did provide John with a “level playing field” when it came to fair treatment. He rarely saw overt racism, and when he did, there was always some officer willing to address the grievance. This mellowed his militancy and made him more able to see all sides of an issue. He matured and became an officer and a leader capable of making hard decisions.

In his back-to-back tours in Southeast Asia, Allen flew approximately three hundred combat missions with the Thirteenth Tactical Fighter Squadron, assigned to the 432nd Recover Wing at Udorn Thani, Thailand. He personally dropped over 1.5 million pounds of bombs from his F4 Phantom over North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. His courage earned him a remarkable five Distinguished Flying Crosses, as well as twenty-three air medals and other decorations. But the experience took its toll. For two years after coming home from Asia, he jumped at the sound of a car horn or any other loud noise.

After seven years in the military, John decided to return to civilian life to go to law school and then open a law practice in Columbus. In the late 190s, he became the first African American in the Chattahoochee Circuit to be elected a Georgia state court judge, and in 1995 voters elected him to be a Superior Court judge. Today Judge John Allen can honestly say that his days in the military were good for him. They gave him confidence, courage, and commitment.

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