Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Race to the Gate at Lucius D. Clay Kaserne


When two young men get drunk on too much beer, some real stupid stuff can happen after that. Perhaps this is doubly true when the two young men in question are soldiers serving in an infantry battalion.

   Such was the case in mid-1987, when then-Specialist Mike Harsh and I got into a marathon beer drinking event in the living-room of my off-kaserne apartment in Osterholz-Scharmbeck one Friday night. Harsh was the M577 Command Post Carrier driver for the S-2 Section, as well as the Battalion Map NCO, where I was an intelligence analyst at the S-2. We were both assigned to HHC, 4th Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment. And, even though we were good friends, we were competitive, as well.

   “Heck, show me a young soldier who isn’t competitive and I’ll show you a sailor,” Scout Platoon Sergeant SFC David Rose would later joke after the event.

Infantryman Mike Harsh
   That night Harsh and I purchased a large quantity of beer after work. My ex-wife, who had endured too many of these nights for her liking, shook her head but had long ago accepted the inevitability that some stupid stuff might be said and done that night. And, we did not disappoint.

   It started out as so many nights did, with Lynyrd Skinner and Alabama playing on my home CD player (which was state-of-the-art back then). We griped for awhile about what was going bad for us in the unit, then celebrated what was going good. All soldiers complain. Soldiers have been whining about things since the Sumerian Army probably came up with the idea of Charge of Quarters duty back in the 4th millennium B.C.

   Maybe if serious videogames had been invented back then the conversation would not have turned to physical prowess. Around our tenth or twentieth brown bottle of Haack Beck (who keeps count?), a little matter of a party a few weeks before came up. At that gathering of sophisticated and enlightened grunts, Harsh and I had gotten into a dust up. We were both contaminated with alcohol, but through the haze he still managed to give me ‘what for’ in some street somewhere. For the life of me, I cannot remember who had thrown the party.

   ‘Well, you might have gotten a lucky shot in here or there,’ I said.

   With his grinning manner, Mike looked down into his beer and muttered, “Yeah, there were a couple of them lucky shots…oh, yeah.” He laughed to himself then.

Intel Analyst Jim Purcell and ex-wife Pat
   Disgruntled by the other soldier’s remark, I said, “You know, Mike, while getting into another fight might be a bad idea, I will make the assertion right here and right now that I could run your butt into the ground in a foot race.” It was a sure declarative statement.

   Mike laughed in between smoking his cigarette and drinking his beer. With the cigarette held between his fingers, he pointed at me and said, “I am going to have to disagree with that statement there. Without saying too much about it, I have to admit that I am fast.”

   From her seat on the opposite side of the room, I could see my ex-wife roll her eyes in anticipation of what was next.

   ‘In that case, I am going to have to propose a race. I am afraid I am going to have to prove that I am so fast that it will appear as if you are standing still while I am speeding to a finish line. So…I dare you to a race,’ I said.

   “We don’t need to do that,” Mike said.

   ‘Okay, I double-dare you!’ I responded.

   My ex-wife busted in and said, “As a supposed adult, you did not just double-dare someone to a race, did you?”

   ‘Mike, the challenge is on the table, right here and right now,’ I said.

   Mike thought for a minute and said, “With that being the case and all, I guess we’re going to have to have ourselves a race: yes, indeedy. The only questions now are where and when.”

   My ex-wife was just laughing in her chair, “You guys are idiots!” she said in between guffaws.

   So as not to prolong this challenge, I knew exactly what I wanted to propose: ‘From here to the front gate of the kaserne, tomorrow (which would be Sunday) at 10 a.m. And, you should prepare a speech of some kind celebrating my win at the end of the course.’

Lucius D. Clay Kaserne, Garlstedt, FRG
   “If it’s okay with you, I will put the speech on hold until we see who gets to the font gate first,” Mike said.

   The course was, as I checked on Google before I wrote this, about 12.7 kilometers, which is almost 8 miles. It was the route that I usually drove when going back and forth to work. For some reason I thought it was a lot closer than it was. So, my plan was to basically take it easy for a mile or so and then go full out. In hindsight, I admit I should have measured the course. But, it was a fair race. Neither one of us trained for it and we had both been drinking about the same, so no one had an advantage.

   I noted that, since there was more beer left, it was only right that we finish it and then turn in at a respectable hour for tomorrows event. He left afterward to return to the barracks with the sun already coming up on Saturday.

   My ex-wife, at one point, said, “At least it is better than you and your friends sitting around getting drunk all the time.” At that, I agreed and was off to bed.

   The following morning, it was about 9:30 a.m. when Mike came to the apartment. He was dressed in sweats, so I took it that he hadn’t forgotten the previous day’s plan. “Alright, time to dance,” he told me as I opened the door.

   ‘I do hope that speech of yours, celebrating my win, is written – so I can send it to the newspapers after the race,’ I chided.

   Mike laughed and said, “I am afraid I am going to have to disappoint you there.”

   We talked about the route one more time, when my ex-wife showed up with our car in front of the house where our apartment was. She parked it alongside the driveway and said, “I’m just going to follow you two, in case I have to scrape up one or both of you.”

   Without anything left to do, we were off.

   Despite the fact this challenge was issued in a light-hearted way, I really wanted to beat Harsh to the front gate. I was encouraged because, by and large, I was pretty fast. I usually beat people in foot races back then and, for as long as I was in the Army, I was a cadence caller in PT formations. So, I was in pretty good shape. Then again, so was Harsh.
The front gate display at LDCK, Garlstedt, FRG

   I actually thought the distance to the first turn-off was about two or three miles away. Now, there was a mistake.
   After two miles and change, we both made the first turn-off at about the same pace. My plan was to make my big move on this one-car wide road, which was bounded by a dairy farm. Cows were the only audience we had as we labored the course. At the very least, we broke up their day.

   I pulled ahead and knew I had to get a lead before we came out to the main road toward the kaserne, which was this long straight-away. The weather was chilly, a little foggy and gray, but that was every day in Northern Germany. There was no chance of being cold in a race, though.

   I didn’t look behind me as I put on the gas and stepped it up past Mike. I started to feel it in my lungs but pushed it, sure I had left him in the dust. Toward the entrance to the straight-away, I figured I would look back to see how far back he was.

   I took that look and there he was – less than ten feet away! ‘At least he’s breathing hard, he had that much courtesy,’ I thought to myself.
The 41st Infantry Regiment

   We made the turn onto the straight-away and it began to drizzle rain. The temperature dropped too. But, that didn’t matter a bit. Mike stepped up then, about halfway through the straight-away. I didn’t quite keep pace but I was in shooting range for most of the last leg. Then, out of nowhere, this guy comes up with a whole new speed and I was cooked.

   Mike hit the front gate about a quarter-mile ahead of me. At that point, my lungs were blowing up, my legs were complaining, and puking wasn’t out of the question either. Meanwhile, Mike was bent over getting his wind.

   It was about this time that I started walking and my ex pulled ahead of me and I got in her black Dodge Charger. She encouraged, “You guys were great!” Anytime you run a race against someone else and come in second, it isn’t ‘great’ But, it was a good way to spend a day.

   She picked up Mike too and we headed back to our apartment. There was no smack talking on the way. I was beat, though, and said, ‘In case you didn’t notice, you won and I lost.’

   “Yeah, I saw,” he said laughing.

   We got back and drank water. He had somewhere to go and had brought civilian clothes. While my ex-wife was chiding me about the race, Mike got changed and was off to his next stop in Osterholz.

   That was about it. I was dog tired and fell to sleep on the couch and didn’t wake up for a few hours. We told our section sergeant, SFC Craig Fisher, about the race the next day and he laughed.

   I walk with a cane now and, as I write this, am awaiting a knee replacement procedure. I think I will hold off on trying for a rematch until they put in that new knee.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Duty with the Iron Deuce’s ‘Fix Bayonets’ Battalion


I showed up at the 2nd Armored Division (Forward) in December, 1986 from the Replacement in Frankfurt, Federal Republic of Germany. My previous duty station had been Fort Bragg, North Carolina, so the below-zero temperatures were a shock, especially as a winter storm was going on in the area when I stepped off the bus at the Division (Forward) replacement company.

  The 2nd Armored Division (Forward) was based at the Lucius D. Clay Kaserne, in Garlstedt, which was a postage-stamp-sized hamlet in Northern Germany, close to the town of Osterholz-Scharmbeck. It was said there was a Viking burial mound around somewhere, but I never saw it. The cities of Bremen and Bremerhaven were north of LDCK. Bremen was made famous by being where Beck’s Beer was made, which was a major landmark for young 2AD soldiers. Meanwhile, Bremerhaven was a port city, known for being the place where American military personnel picked up their cars after being transported from the United States. To the south was Hamburg, a big city noteworthy for being bombed into a firestorm during World War II by Allied bombers, and later for being the city that launched the British pop group ‘The Beatles’ in the early 1960s.

Welcome to the 2nd Armored Division (Fwd)

      The kaserne was home of the 1st and 4th battalions of the 41st Infantry Regiment; the 2nd Battalion, 66th Armored Regiment; 4th Battalion, 3rdField Artillery Regiment; a combat support battalion (I forget the unit’s name); and a Division (Forward) Headquarters and Headquarters Company. Essentially, the Division (Forward) was a reinforced brigade-sized element located in Northern Germany since 1978, when President Jimmy Carter assigned the unit there with the mission of supporting British Forces in the Northern Army Group.

   After attending a two-week crash course in German language and customs at the Hell on Wheels Academy, a chore everyone had to go through who was assigned there, I was told that I would be slotted as the battalion intelligence analyst for the 4th Battalion, 41st Infantry. I had briefly served in an infantry battalion before, at Ft. Ord in California, so I basically knew what to expect.  Some intelligence people were ‘lent’ to the 7th Infantry Division during that unit’s light infantry certification exercise by units at Bragg, in 1986. What I didn’t expect was getting walking pneumonia during my first week at the kaserne.

   I got settled into HHC, 4/41 immediately and was assigned to the Battalion S-2, which was the battalion’s intelligence and security section for the 600+ soldier unit. I met the battalion intelligence officer, 1st Lieutenant Anthony P. Deal even before I met the rest of the crew at the S-2. It was a surprise to see him there given the fact that, two years before, it was 1LT Deal who was the company executive officer of my training company at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, where I qualified to become a 96B, intelligence analyst.

4/41 Inf. was one of the first units to receive Bradleys
   What were the chances?
   ‘Excuse me, sir, but are you the same…,’ I asked.

   “Yeah, yeah, Purcell, every 96B in the Army who trained at Huachuca when you went through has met or seen me. But, we’re here now, and this is a tough job that I hope you are up for,” the lieutenant said.

   ‘I sure hope I am, sir,’ I responded.

   “Me too,” 1LT Deal countered.

   1LT Deal was a competent, no-nonsense officer who was a former United States Marine NCO. He was joined at the S-2 by the section non-commissioned officer in-charge, which was Sergeant First Class Craig Fisher, a gruff infantry veteran who had ‘been there and done that’ in the infantry for more than 20 years. The analyst I was replacing was very competent, Sgt. Ernesto Servin. But, he was leaving the Army to return to civilian life back in his native Philadelphia, Pennsylvania within the month. Meanwhile, the section’s command post carrier driver, Specialist Mike Harsh, was trained in Bradley Fighting Vehicles and had previously served in the 1st Cavalry Division (Forward) in Southern Germany.

Two M577s comprised the Battalion Tac. Ops Ctr (TOC)
Boris and Oksbol: As Cold As It Gets

   As soon as I was in the section, I tried to hit the ground running, which was hard while dealing with pneumonia. But, showing up at a unit – any unit – and going on Sick Call first thing was bad form. And, in the infantry, that counted a lot. So, I drank medicine like it was soda and got through for as long as I could.
   The battalion was gearing up for its upcoming cold weather training in Boris and Oksbol, Denmark, which was even colder than Northern Germany. After a week at the unit, I had to suck it up and go on Sick Call and get better before the training exercise. It was there that the physician’s assistant diagnosed me with pneumonia and gave me a couple weeks off to get better before the unit moved out. It might be bad to go on Sick Call, but it would be a lot worse starting cold weather training with pneumonia.
SPC Jim Purcell at the Hohenfels Training Area

   I was screened at Sick Call by CPL Chris Larsen, who I’d later find out was an ace as a medic for any unit. Meanwhile, I learned that there was a kind of celebrity who was assigned as the unit’s physician assistant, CW3 Donald R. Hohman, who was one of the 52 hostages held by the Iranian Government between 1980-1981. At the time, the chief was a sergeant first class (E-7) and served as a medic at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. I once asked him if the rumors about him being a hostage there were true and he just said, “Yep, that was me.” He left it there and went back to whatever he was doing. The chief was a distant guy but seemed to do his job well.

   I guess it could be said that I made my bones with my section at Oksbol. In Boris, the battalion’s line companies practiced gunnery on the range there for its Bradley and Scout fighting vehicles (M2s and M3s). Then it was on to Oksbol, which had served many purposes for the Danish since it was established during World War II. At the time the battalion was there, it was a training area with several abandoned building on the grounds, one of them being a disused hospital. However, the transition from Boris to Oksbol was made eventful when a severe winter storm struck the area and lowered temperatures down to 40 degrees-below-zero Fahrenheit. This was complicated by non-stop, freezing rain, snow and sleet that refused to let up for more than a week. Cold weather training was one thing, but temperatures that froze anti-freeze was another.
Mike Harsh after he graduated Inf. School

   Despite winter’s onslaught, the battalion tried to conduct its maneuvers, but that soon became impossible. One-hundred-forty mile per hour winds, a sheet of white coming down everywhere from the gray sky and temperatures that were freezing everything from wires to liquids, combined with continuing accumulations of snow, soon forced the battalion to withdraw to the disused hospital building. Thankfully, the Danish Army had left the heat and lights on. Still, vehicles in the ad hoc motor pool established there had to be cold-started every hour on the hour, around the clock.

   So, for the next week-plus, 4/41 soldiers played gin rummy games for up to 10,000 points or more and lived with a darkened sky outside, which made knowing day from night a challenge sometimes. Everyone was going a bit stir crazy. Eventually, though, like all things good or bad, the storm ended. The battalion rail-loaded its array of vehicles (M2s and M3s, mortar carriers, M113s, M577s, Gamma Goats, HMMWVs and trucks of every description) and it was back to LDCK and Northern Germany, where the weather was still cold but nothing approaching the scalding freeze in Denmark.
The Northern Army Group during the Cold War

   I bonded with the other members of the S-2, as well as the Battalion Headquarters section during the Denmark deployment, though. Tough times tend to bring soldiers together, at least good soldiers. And, the battalion was a hard-soldiering but fair place to serve. At that time, the battalion commander was Lieutenant-Colonel William T. Vossler. He was a sober, strong leader who had served throughout the Army, most notably during the Vietnam War. On the radio, he was easily recognized by his permanent callsign, which was “Pale Rider.” His No. 2 was Major Anthony Scattamachia, who was the battalion executive officer. The man was a blur of energy who was upbeat and armed with a perennial “can do” attitude. Some people changed in the field, but not the “Scat man.”

   Soon after the battalion redeployed to the kaserne, Servin, who was promoted to the rank of sergeant, left the unit headed for the United States and “fort livingroom.” I didn’t get to know him very well, but he seemed like a good sort.

Garrison and the IG Inspection

   As soon as the unit was back, we were all looking at an Inspector General’s inspection, which basically reviewed all the practices, equipment and personnel assigned to the battalion; every company, every vehicle, every record, every piece of equipment that is accounted for by a hand receipt. In the field, the work was 24/7, and for the first two weeks in February, 1987, it seemed like it was the same in garrison getting ready for IG inspectors.

   1LT Deal used to say that “…you can ride troops hard, but you can’t hang them up wet.” He elaborated that, if the S-2 section came out having successfully done its part for the inspection, there would be some extra free time in the weeks ahead. However, if we collectively dropped the ball on the IG Inspection, then we would all preoccupy ourselves with fixing whatever was found deficient. That was ample motivation enough to make sure the team was ready.

   In the Army, the “team concept” was brought up in nearly every speech, every address to the troops, wherever Army units were. I had been in a few units in the Army before I found myself in 4/41 and, for the most part, that phrase was just words. But not in the S-2, or anywhere else in the outfit. Perhaps the most telling test of the core leadership values came not from any IG inspection, but could be judged by the fact that, during the Denmark deployment, not one soldier in the battalion suffered from a cold weather injury, including dehydration. This does not happen by accident, but through non-commissioned officers doing their job, checking on their men and making sure that their charges were ready for the extreme temperature.
The Army Overseas Ribbon

   At LDCK, the IG Inspection came and went, and the battalion was rated as “outstanding” overall, for an average. In particular, the S-2 did very well. At garrison, there were no ‘tactical duties’ for an intelligence analyst. However, I was charged with maintaining the battalion’s personnel security files, which were records of security clearances, investigations submitted and any communication with the Central Clearance Facility, at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. Among other areas in the S-2 Section, mine was rated as “outstanding,” as well as the other inspectable areas maintained by the rest of the S-2 staff.

   Finally, a chance to take a breath.

   The Monday morning PT flak-jacket runs along the Limited Training Area adjacent to the kaserne was a staple. GIs were sometimes hung over from their weekend activities, but by the end of the run everyone had basically sweated out their sins. Well, it smelled like that, at least. Vehicle maintenance was an almost everyday thing. I suppose that, in any mechanized or Bradley unit, vehicle readiness is a hallmark of any unit’s effectiveness. However, there was a chance to get to enjoy garrison life for a few months before the next field problem, and to see what the night life around LDCK was.
4/41 Inf. rotated back to the U.S. during mid-1988

   SFC Fisher said that the next field problem was going to be REFORGER 1987. REFORGER was an acronym for “Return Forces to Germany.” Basically, it was a big, long field exercise that involved units stationed in Germany taking up field positions while units from the United States came over and supplemented USAREUR (United States Army in Europe) and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) forces.

Getting to Know LDCK

   SFC Fisher told Harsh and myself, “You guys did good the last few months. You’ll have some breathing room for the next few weeks, but then we’ll be on the ball again. Don’t get in trouble or act stupid and everything will be fine. Do your work here and in the Motor Pool and if you need any leave, or a pass, then ask for it now. Things will be pretty slow around here for a little bit.”

   Harsh and me didn’t need SFC Fisher to give big compliments. Him saying as “did good” for a few months was all the praise we need. SFC Fisher was like a bear. He was big, strong and had what must have been the biggest moustache allowed in the Army. If someone did right under his command then they knew it, and if they did wrong under his supervision then that was a bad thing. It was better to stay on the straight-and-narrow with him.

A statue of Charlemagne is featured in Bremen's town square
   I lived on the economy with my former wife in Osterholz-Scharmbeck, so our apartment became a regular hangout for my friends who were living in the barracks. Still, there were two bars on the main drag in O’beck: one was a small corner bar called the Central Imbiss, and the other one down the street was larger. I wish I could remember its name. It was more like a full-service place, which had food and drinks and was usually packed with soldiers all night.

   There was also a small club in O’beck, which I went to once and was thrown out the same night for taking offense at a soldier from another unit. Whatever I did, I recall the sensation of being picked up by two bouncers and briefly being thrown into the air before I had a sudden landing on the stony ground of the parking lot. Of course, there was an enlisted man’s club on the kaserne, which I think was called the Patton Club. As I recall it, there was dancing there sometimes, but it was basically a gymnasium-sized beer hall. Booze, food, fights and friendship all happened there.
Bremerhaven was a strategic port during the Cold War

   If a soldier got bored with the local fare, they could take a train to Bremerhaven, which had two clubs (as I recall), Kraftwerk and the Sieman’s Club. The town also hosted a fair Chinese restaurant that represented the best food in town, which wasn’t saying very much. Kraftwerk was a full-on disco while the Sieman’s Club, from what I could see, was a place where crusty old alcoholics ordered over-priced drinks and muttered to themselves all night. As I remember it, Bremen was a nice place to go for a daytime visit (old churches, statues, beautiful cobbled streets), but it was a little too respectable to have a proper night out in.

   When I discovered that a neighbor of mine, who was a nice elderly woman, distributed Beck’s Light from out of her cellar (in German it was called Haake Beck), it became a regular event to have my buddies over and drink from Friday night to the wee hours of the morning on Saturday, when we were in garrison. I might have woken my neighbor up once of twice to get reloaded with beer, but I am sure my buds and I contributed handsomely to her retirement.

2d Armored soldiers wore unit patches over their heart
in honor of former Div. Cdr. Gen. George Patton    
Away From Duty In Northern Germany

   My wife was not always thrilled with the company, but we were a long way from home and the music, friendship and camaraderie made the distance feel a little closer to our lives back in the States. Besides, if the balloon went up with Russia, which was a real concern back then, these were the guys who would be watching my back and the hands I would be putting my life in.

My group of friends had a line-up that would change here and there. But, the core was usually the same: SGT Judson Myers, who was in the S-3; SPC Mike Harsh, from S-2, who was in charge of maps for the battalion and drove the section’s M577 Command Post Carrier in the field; Specialists Randy Sellers and Jeff Harvey, both drivers from S-3; and PFC Bruce Fogle, who drove the S-3’s M577 Command Post Carrier and served as their main radioman and communications technician. These were steady guys, who were tough and loyal if I got in a tight place (on duty or off). They were good buds too, and maybe the best I ever made.

   The Army of the 1980s, in some ways, bore little likeness to the Army today. Infantry units were comprised of soldiers who were rough, drank too much, fought a lot and raised hell when they weren’t on duty doing whatever they were doing. There were no choir boys in the ranks back then. Physically rugged, these men loved their units and their brothers. Officers kept their distance, but they did their jobs too and were sure their men were loyal enough to do anything they were told to do, and rough enough to make sure that whatever it was got done. After a while, 4/41 didn’t feel like ‘home away from home.’ It just felt like home.

The City of Bremen and Beck's share the same logo
             Faces From the Past

   The line-and-block chart for the battalion was straight-forward: the battalion staff, motor pool guys, cooks, mortars and scouts were housed within Headquarters and Headquarters Company; Companies A, B, C and D were Bradley line units; and Company E was a TOW anti-tank company. Company commanders and section leaders came and went sometimes, but the ones I remember the most were: MAJ James A. Bowden and CPT Carlos Burgos, who served as S-3 at different times;  1LT Deal and later 1LT James Walker were S-2 officers in charge; 1LT Darrell Eucker was the S-4; CPT John Copp was the Alpha Company commander; 1LT John Lias was the Mortar Platoon leader; SFC David Rose was the Scout Platoon sergeant; and 1LT Margiotta (whose first name escapes me) was the Scout Platoon commander.

   There are lots of great soldiers I can’t remember anymore, and it’s a shame because most of them were great guys. But, I do remember some: SFC Arvid Johnson was an S-3 operations sergeant; Sgt. James Mintz was the perennial S-4 NCOIC while I was there; and SPCs Steven Jarnol and Anton Guyton were S-3 drivers. SPC James Spears later joined the S-2, and SPC James Mintz after him (no relation to the Mintz in S-4).

   I will probably be writing more about the “Fix Bayonets” battalion, as well as other units I served in. But this was the beginning of my time with 4/41 Infantry.
(Jim Purcell is a retired journalist and former U.S. Army sergeant, who served as an intelligence analyst and infantryman, respectively, during his service. As a journalist, Mr. Purcell is the former editor and publisher of Bayshore Press, in Middletown, New Jersey.)