During the latter part of December, 1971, word was buzzing around through command channels that intelligence analysis of the past few months indicated something big was about to happen. We knew that something major was developing, and based on the past, we assumed that big event would be timed to coincide once again with the Vietnamese Tet observations. We had seen indications of new division-sized North Vietnamese Army units being formed, and old divisions being retrofitted by an influx of both soldiers and equipment. Reported sightings of tanks on the north side of the DMZ were becoming fairly routine.
Sometime after Christmas the Deputy Commanding General of XXIV Corps came to the 8th Field Station to hear our analysis for himself. I guess for security reasons, not too many people knew that he was coming, least of all a 19-year old Specialist Four working the evening shift in the analysis shop.
I got off shift around 8:00 in the morning, and after breakfast, went to the “Day Room,” as the building was known where I had my bunk at Phu Bai, to get some sleep. I was looking forward to NOT having to work that evening – in fact, I wouldn’t be going back to work for over a week – my first break of longer than 12 hours since arriving at Phu Bai. I was scheduled to leave the next morning for a long-awaited R&R.
I had been asleep for a little over an hour when a runner from the Watch Office came and woke me up, telling me they wanted me in Operations. Although a bit aggravating, this was not completely unusual, so I just threw on a pair of cut-off fatigue pants, a T-shirt and slipped on a pair of flip-flops to run over to the operations building.
Seeing the access guard in pressed jungle fatigues was sort of unusual, but I just figured the MP’s were having some sort of inspection that day or the Soldier on duty just wanted to look sharp. No big deal. As I walked into the operations building, everything seemed normal – the “house mouse” pushing a broom down the hallway, someone else taking out some trash, and a couple of Soldiers taking a cart of burn bags to the incinerator. I walked into the analysis area and asked the NCOIC (Non-Commissioned Officer-In-Charge) what was up. As he looked up at me, he gave me a wide-eyed stare, and said, “Um, Whitman, they want you in the Watch Office.” “What’s going on?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he replied slowly enunciating each syllable, “they just wanted you.”
I left the analysis shop and walked across the hall to the Watch Office where I asked the Watch NCO for a cup of coffee, and what was going on. He pointed to the coffee pot, said, “Help yourself,” adding somewhat condescendingly, “Can’t believe you came in like that.” I gave him an over-the-shoulder glance and said, “Give me a break. I worked the night shift, and fell asleep just before your runner came and got me, what do you expect?”
I was beginning to sense that something was up, so as I poured the coffee, I again asked him why they woke me up. He gave me an eye-roll and said that he didn’t know, he was just told to get me and that they wanted me in the briefing room, adding once again, “I can’t believe you came in like that.”
Our briefing room, rather “high-tech” for the period, had tactical-level maps of our area of responsibility on three of the four walls, covered nearly floor-to-ceiling with large sheets of Plexiglas. This was where we briefed the Field Station Commander and staff every morning, and there may have been room for about 20 chairs. Along the bottom of the walls, placed to shine up through the Plexiglas, was a bank of colored lights controlled from the briefing lectern to highlight different colored grease pencil markings on the Plexiglas. It was actually pretty cool with the main lights off: the map really lit up with different colors representing locations of friendly and enemy forces and other information that needed highlighting. The door was closed, and no voices could be heard, so I was pretty sure there was nothing in progress there.
But something was definitely going on. As I stirred my coffee, I tried to figure out what could be the pressing need for me to come in, and decided it was simply a prank – someone had brewed an elaborate scheme to try to mess up my last day before R&R. No big deal, we did this to each other all the time. I’d play along, find out who instigated it and return the favor after I got back from Thailand. It was a practical joke. Nothing else made sense.
So, confident in my analysis of the situation, I picked up my coffee, opened the door to a briefing room lit only by the friendly situation lights, and loudly announced, “Here I am you lucky people, what’s the emergency that needs me?”
A tall, very tall, man, already standing, strode toward the doorway, and all my eyes could focus on was the set of pearl-handled revolvers and stars. General Officer stars. My hands started shaking with the realization that I was face-to-face with a General Officer, and as my knees started to give out, he said, “I asked for you, Whitman.”
I nearly dropped my coffee cup, the coffee burning my hand as it sloshed over the rim of the cup. I tried to talk, and stammered something obviously unintelligible, apologizing I hope, for my lack of everything – protocol, courtesy, respect, you name it – and knew that any thought of a career in the Army was now hopeless. I was a basket case. I thought for sure my knees were going to give out.
The General immediately saw the situation for what it was: here was a young Soldier, unnerved by meeting a General Officer for the first time. He reached out his hand and introduced himself, “Duane, I’m General So-and-so, relax.” He put his hand on my shoulder, and as he guided me toward the main map wall he said, “I put my pants on the same way you do, one leg at a time. They told me in Saigon if I wanted to know the ground truth up here, you were the guy to ask. I know you’re tired, but let’s walk up to the map board, and you and I will talk about what’s going on.”
Oblivious now to the rest of the people in the briefing room, we went to the map board and I told him about the various things we’d seen, our analysis of the events, and what our little group of analysts thought could be in the offing. While I remembered and maintained appropriate military courtesy throughout our discussion, the General was more interested in our discussion than ensuring that I began and ended each sentence with “General, Sir.” Finally satisfied that he had covered all of his questions, he thanked me for my time, thanked the Field Station Commander for hosting him, and departed. Silence enveloped the briefing room. When no one said anything, and I have no idea who all was in the room, I just left. As I walked back to the dayroom, I felt pretty good about how things had gone, despite the way the day began, and was comfortable the 8th RRFS had provided the XXIV Corps Deputy Commander with everything he wanted. My work done for the day, I packed my things for R&R and went to bed.
I left the next morning from Phu Bai airport, through Danang and Tan Son Nhut air bases and on to Bangkok, Thailand. I never had a second thought about the briefing or possible changes that would come about as a result.
I was quite surprised, then, when I returned to Phu Bai to find all my belongings packed with a set of transfer orders sitting on top of my duffel bag: orders transferring me to the detachment at Quang Tri. My company commander would only say that apparently I had not followed proper protocol during the General’s visit and someone in the command section thought I should replace the recently departed senior analyst in the 407th.
So, in case you had been wondering why I spent such a short period of time with the 407th, this is why I was in Quang Tri for the Easter Offensive of 1972.
P.S. My memory says that the General was then Major General James Hollingsworth – renowned for his revolvers – but to be frank, I’m not at all sure that it was the famous General, or another. But the incident, and the differing reactions to that incident based on the ranks of the other individuals present, made a strong impression on me. LTG Hollingsworth died earlier this month (March 2010). In reading his obituaries, I am sure this was the General Officer I met.