THE BOYS OF BATTERY B
Captain Moses stayed in the Army after Vietnam and retired a full bird colonel in 1983. He has a lot to say about leadership. He seems to have learned from every commander he served under and from every tight spot in his career.
The Magic Hold of Leadership
When we moved into LZ Judy in January of 1968, just before Tet, we didn’t put anything underground, we just built our hooches up on top. The ground was hard pack alluvial plain material, like concrete for the first foot or more, and the monsoon rains would flood any hole you had in the ground. We’d been at Judy for a couple months when Lieutenant Colonel Elliott, the new taskforce commander, came out to inspect. He wanted everything underground, saying to me, “Look George, it’s better to have wet feet than to be shot. Let’s get everything down to no higher than waist level.”
That meant we had to dig in everything. One of my pictures shows me digging a hole for my own hooch. That damn ground was so hard you just had to beat the hell out of it to get below that crust. Once you got below the crust you could dig in it. I couldn’t ask these guys to dig me a hole. The hell with it I’d dig my own hole.
We had a lot to dig in. Every one of those hooches had to be taken down to the level of that one in the picture way off on the left. Of course we got it done.
“You may be the first and only West Point graduate to dig his own hooch hole.”
It just seemed like the right thing to do. I couldn’t ask the guys to dig my hole for me. I’d ordered them to dig their own; to dig mine too would have been a shitty deal.
That’s not to say Captain Moses believed in equality.
At Qui Nhon I had a separate officers mess built and insisted they eat separate from the NCOs and the rest of the men. I did that because officers need to talk about officer things; and NCOs need to talk about NCO things. That doesn’t mean we don’t talk during the day. But at meal time that’s the time to share things, and you may want to share things you don’t want the other group to know about. In today’s Army that probably would not fly very well. At the time for me it made sense.
I remember my old battalion commander at Ft. Benning, Colonel Bishop, telling me, “There are officer things and there are NCO things, and there are times when they shouldn’t mix.” He was an old WWII warrior and I wasn’t about to argue with that.
Bishop had three rules. Never give an order you couldn’t enforce. Never give an order you wouldn’t do yourself. And an officer never fools around with an enlisted man’s wife. He looked at all of us on his staff and said, “And I want all you young bucks to stay away from my mama.” He was a good man and a good leader.
There was another incident that I have not talked a lot about. It grew out of my respect for Bishop and what I learned from him. Bishop was a big advocate that a commander of an outfit had a magic hold on soldiers. He said it’s the thing that happens when you go to a change of command. Before the colors are passed every eye is on the old commander, not the new one. Then once the colors pass every eye is on the new commander, not on the old one. So when you’ve got a bad thing going on, the only way to get ahold of it as a commander is to get in the middle of it yourself.
We had an incident one night at LZ Judy. One of my young troops was on guard duty in a bunker that had a 15 foot walkway down into the bunker, so that you were down on field of fire level through the barbed wire. It was late at night. The first sergeant came to me and said, “Sir, we got a problem with a guard post. He’s threatening to kill himself, and he’s gonna kill anybody that comes down there to mess with him. They tried talking him out of it, but he’s not having any of it.” How in the hell was I going to handle this? What would Bishop do? There was only one damn way this was gonna resolve. The kid would shoot himself, or he’d come out on his own. But while this was going on we had a jeopardized guard post out here, and that put all of us at risk.
I said, “OK.” I got up, got dressed and went down to the bunker entrance and I called the young man’s name out and I said, “This is Captain Moses, I’m here and I understand you’re having a rough night.” He told me he had gotten a letter from his girlfriend that caused him a lot of anxiety. I said, “Look, I’m gonna come down and talk to you. We need to talk this out. I’m not armed and I’m not going to hurt you or anything. I just want to sit down and talk this over.”
He didn’t say anything. I’m thinking to myself, Well, if I’m going down I better do it. And about that time you know how fear gets ahold of you. The hair on the back of my head went up. My cheeks went flush. My spine was trembling. But I walked down that damn ramp and I said to myself, Goddamn, the last thing I see might be the flash out of an M16 for all I know. I walked in and fortunately he was sitting down. There was just enough light to make him out sitting in the back of the bunker with the M16 butt on the ground between his legs. I think he was just resting. I said, “Why don’t we just sit here and talk awhile.”
He said, “Sure, sir, have a seat.”
We just started talking about his problem. His girlfriend had written him a letter telling him she was leaving him and he was pretty distraught. By this time too the entire battery was getting a little worn out. I was even in my own letters beginning to see things a little negatively. I remember commenting recently after reading my old letters that I could see my energy level dropping.
Anyway, we talk for 15 maybe 20 minutes, a long time. I finally said, “You know, look, you’re gonna be just fine. We’re gonna forget about this little problem tonight. You go back to your section and nobody’s going to say anything to you about this. You just go on with your duty and do it the way you know how, and when you get back home you’re going to find somebody that’s worthy of you.” That seemed to calm him down. I came walking out with him.
The first sergeant had a replacement for him, the replacement went on duty. I told the section chief to take him back to his section and let him get some rest. Then I told the first sergeant, “I don’t want anybody in this battery to say a damn thing to him or anyone else about this incident.” And they didn’t and the man worked out just fine. But I’ll tell you what, it scared the shit out of me. That’s where my time with Bishop paid off.
There were other incidents. We were going to be inspected one day by the First Field Force commander. The night before we had a fire mission, and somehow the powder pit caught on fire. Everybody was un-assing from the ammunition bunker and running and yelling, “Fire, get away.” I looked at the powder pit and I could see that the fire was burning almost straight up. It wasn’t throwing stuff into the ammo bunker, but it was searing the bunker beam and sandbag walls. I thought, We can control this. I jumped up and ran over with a shovel and started throwing dirt around it and started tamping out the fire that was on the sandbags. When others saw me they all began coming back and we got it under control. We had some black wood and sandbags for the inspection the next morning, but it all worked out.
Now that came from when I was a cadet and had gone to Germany as a third lieutenant in the 3rd medium tank battalion up in Friedberg. We went to Grafenwoehr for 30 days and I had a tank platoon. During the bivouac out in the field we had the old M-48 tanks that had gas drums on the back mounted on steel racks. They would leak gasoline down into the engine well. Every now and then one of these damn things would catch fire. This particular company commander had burned up two of those tanks on other exercises.
In the company mess area late one night the mechanics were working on this tank, and the damn thing caught on fire. Everybody ran … except the company commander. He looked at that and started yelling, “No. No.” He ran over and he got into the driver’s seat with the thing flaming in the engine well. He started the engine and moved that tank out of the bivouac area. When everybody saw that they all came back, got fire extinguishers and got the fire under control. Damn, that took courage. But maybe that’s why officers were there. Maybe that’s why our NCOs were there. To be able to get those kinds of things under control.
The powder pit incident in Vietnam caused me to do the same thing under different circumstances. That flashed through my mind. I could see that company commander grabbing that burning tank and driving it out of the company area. That made me believe that the way you conduct yourself day to day is affecting others in the battery in ways you can’t predict. It creates a mindset to make good things happen if you provide a good example.
I sit down and think about those things. Those leadership incidents I saw as a young cadet and the ones I experienced with Bishop. They stuck with me, and I don’t think it was always conscious. I don’t talk a lot about these incidents, but I think it makes a point about how you affect the future of people you are leading.
At one of the reunions we had at Ft. Sill, I was a colonel by then, a young soldier came up to me and said, “Colonel, when you were on the firebase you would walk around talking to people. That always made us feel safer.”
I told him I was glad to hear that because I didn’t do a lot of socializing with soldiers. Occasionally we’d go to a movie and there would be some banter, but I didn’t do a lot of socializing, beer drinking with them and that kind of thing. I would take care of them and I would talk to them and deal with their problems. That also came from Bishop. There were times when we were in a rear area when we had a good time together. But when we were on a firebase conducting missions it wasn’t a social thing. They expected you to help them through this thing alive.