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Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Osama bin Laden, leader of the Taliban and mastermind behind the 2001 attack in New York and Washington, D.C., was shot and killed last Sunday in Pakistan by U.S. troops, then buried at sea. We heard that bin Laden was armed and shooting from behind a woman he was using as a shield. We heard that the woman was one of his wives. We heard that he wasn’t armed. We heard that it was another woman and not one of his wives. We heard that he didn’t use a woman as a shield. At this writing, some members of the Taliban don’t believe bin Laden is dead and they demand proof, and Obama (not to be confused with Osama) is planning to show at least one picture of the dead guy.  The next day we hear that Obama will not show any pictures, because "conspiracy theorists" will just say their fake anyway.  All this information and conflicting information and misinformation and disinformation brings to mind my barracks bunk in South Korea in 1969.

That’s where I was sleeping when our sergeant came in and woke us all up and told us that an infantryman had gone mad, stolen a hand grenade and was running around on post. We continued to lie in our bunks, but wide awake and rattled.

This was Camp Ames, about ten miles northeast of Taejon. In this camp we had several companies, housed in certain areas, including M.P.’s, infantry, and our 833rd Ordnance Company. The U.S. was not supposed to have nuclear weapons in South Korea. We had signed something to that effect. But everyone knew that we had nuclear weapons there--that is, everyone but Americans. Even Red China knew. To piss off our sergeant, we often tuned our barracks radio in to the Chinese propaganda station, which was broadcast in English, usually by a pleasant female voice. And one Christmas, the Chinese were wishing merry Christmas to various U.S. posts within radio hearing, and I could hardly believe my ears when the broadcaster said, “And you men at Camp Ames, don’t drop anything.”

It was our job to maintain the warheads that were stored there in bunkers, and surrounding the valley of bunkers were small mountains with guard towers on top. Earlier that day, an infantry truck was coming down the narrow road on one of these mountains, and the brakes gave out. The truck coasted off the road and rolled down the mountainside, killing one of the men riding in back. A close friend of the killed man then flipped out. That night he managed to get a hold of a live grenade and intended to go blow up the driver of the truck, whom he blamed for his friend’s death. And that’s why we were all lying wide-eyed in our dark barracks in the middle of the night.

And then it happened--the sounds that made our hearts sink. There was a gunshot, then another one, and, after a few seconds, an explosion that seemed to strum the bass string of earth itself.

Hugh Thompson Jr., honored
for rescuing Vietnamese civilians
from his fellow GIs during the
1968 My Lai massacre.
At formation the next morning, the first sergeant explained to the two hundred of us standing there what happened. The infantry soldier, in searching for the truck driver, went into the non-commissioned officers’ barracks. When he came out, armed men were waiting for him. From a safe distance they shot him in the legs. He fell, and was killed by his own hand grenade. We were told not to write home telling this story, because “it would be another My Lai incident.” In My Lai, South Vietnam, on March 16, 1968, hundreds of unarmed civilians, mostly women and children and elderly, were murdered by U.S. soldiers under the command of William Calley. Many of the victims were raped, beaten, tortured, and some mutilated. When Americans heard about this, there was national and international outrage, enough to make our first sergeant paranoid enough to tell us to keep this grenade incident secret.

By this time I had gotten in trouble for sneaking up (twice) behind co-workers while they were calibrating nuclear warheads and popping an inflated surgical glove to scare them to death. And so I was fortunate enough to transfer from nuclear weapons maintenance to being in charge of the Camp Ames mail room, the best job I ever had in the Army. The mail room was located in the post headquarters building where the big wigs worked, so I was occasionally made privy about inside information.

In the days following the grenade incident, there was an investigation, and apparently one of the investigators wasn’t as paranoid as our first sergeant, for he wandered over to the mail room’s Dutch door and told me what really happened. As “Monk” would say in the TV series, “here’s what happened”: The men waiting from a safe distance outside when the crazy infantryman came out were sharpshooters and very ready. They shot the man dead, hitting him in the head and the chest (like bin Laden was hit), and according to the investigator, the grenade probably wouldn’t have killed him, where it exploded and where the body lay.

This is not to condemn the shooters, who were acting to defend themselves and everyone else on post, but I’m making the point that these stories vary. They vary for several reasons, including paranoia, and it’s rare that an honest investigator will saunter over to the mail room door.

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1 comment:

  1. Yes Dale, that was a scary incident, but I was out in the village, when it happened. I heard the shots, an explosion and then mortars shooting flares. The flares lit the rice paddies. It's true, he was shot twice (they probably had to do it). One of our friends, a Medic (will not mention name-but you know who he is) attended the case at the Medical Dispensary and said his head had a big bullet hole. I don't have to write my name, because I am your friend from Puerto Rico.