In June 1970, ten weeks into my first assignment and three weeks after making first lieutenant, I assumed command of B Troop, 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry, in Schweinfurt.
3/7 Cav was the one of the front-line ‘tripwire‘ units stationed along the East German border during the Cold War to deter the much larger Warsaw Pact Soviet forces from seizing West Germany. We believed an invasion could happen any moment. We worked very hard to prepare for that possibility. Fortunately, it never came.
At that point in my new career, I was not nearly ready to command a cavalry troop. I asked the Squadron Commander, a non-grad aviator, to give this command opportunity to a more experienced officer. But for reasons unclear then as now, he was firm that I take the troop. I really did not know where to begin.
One of the more important recurring obligations of mechanized units in Germany was the monthly submission of DA form 2406, the “Material Condition Status Report”, colloquially the ‘deadline report’. It informed higher headquarters which vehicles were not combat ready, and why. B Troop’s report was due a week after I took command. One thing I actually knew something about was automotive and weapons systems, and I resolved that my deadline report would be 100% accurate.
The Army publishes detailed Equipment Serviceability Criteria (ESC) with very specific requirements for reporting the status of each vehicle type. With the relevant ESC in hand, I made myself conspicuous among my soldiers as they performed the requisite technical inspections of their vehicles. I tried to be clear that I wanted an honest and accurate report, which raised some eyebrows among my NCOs. But they did as I asked. Their honest inspections placed 29 of the troop’s 38 vehicles in the ‘ESC Red’ category, ‘not combat ready’, ‘deadlined’. I confirmed the accuracy of each deadlined vehicle’s status per the ESC, signed the report, and sent it to the Squadron Motor Officer.
Somewhat to my surprise – I was new – my report was not well received at Squadron. I learned that my predecessor’s report for the previous month had showed only eight vehicles deadlined. My vastly larger report was not viewed as progress.
I was summoned to the Squadron Commander’s office the next day and told to bring my deadline report. I anticipated some discussion, so I also brought the related Equipment Serviceability Criteria. The CO sat me down and closed the door. Oddly, neither the Squadron XO nor the Squadron Motor Officer was present. The CO was clearly not happy. He told me we would weed down B Troop’s huge deadline report to a more accurate number. Over the course of about 45 minutes, we went down the list vehicle-by-vehicle, with conversations something like this:
CO: So, you’ve deadlined B-16 (an M-551 Sheridan) for inoperative intercom.
We work around that by giving the driver one of the infantry PRC-25 portable radios, and the vehicle commander can talk to the driver over the radio. No need for intercom, so off deadline.
Me: Ah, sir, that’d be a practical workaround in a pinch, but as you can see, the ESC specifically disallow that for the deadline report. I think we’ve got to report the intercom problem as a deadline item. I think B-16 needs to stay on the list.
CO: You’ve deadlined B-32 (an M-114) for no electrical power to the commander’s turret.
But the vehicle commander can pop out of the hatch and fire the .50 cal up top. So, we can take it off the list.
Me: Ah, sir, no doubt we’d do that in combat, but the ESC specifically require deadlining the vehicle if the turret doesn’t have power. Maybe they want to be able to fire buttoned up? I think it needs to stay on the list.
And so it went, through each vehicle on the list. The CO couldn’t justify removing even one, which did not improve his mood. My deadline report went to Brigade and Division without any deletions.
I recall explaining to him, an LTC with Vietnam experience, the importance of submitting an accurate report, so higher headquarters would know how badly we needed the parts that would correct these serious problems, problems that would create casualties in combat. I also suggested that he could send in some reduced version of my report over his own signature, but that my signature could only go on the report I had already submitted. In hindsight, these were probably not the most diplomatic comments I might have made at that juncture. Perhaps unlike lieutenants from other commissioning sources, I was accustomed to frank discussions with my LTC instructors at West Point.
This Squadron Commander and I had several other disagreements of principle during what was to be the brief tenure of my first command. In September, during my fourth month, an Armor captain showed up in the squadron, and I was promptly relieved. A trivial job was found for me in Brigade S2, where I marked time over the next twelve months, awaiting the predictable orders for Vietnam.
Later, I learned that the Squadron Commander had earlier promised the Division Commanding General to reduce the squadron’s deadline rate below 5%. So, my initial deadline report was unwelcome, regardless what effect it might have had on our priority for getting repair parts.
My Squadron CO did not share my “Officer Efficiency Report” job rating with me, so I saw it only when I visited the Office of Personnel Management at the Pentagon en route to Vietnam, a year later. I found I had received an 89 out of a possible score of 100. Having assumed command with near total ignorance of how to run a cavalry troop, and the mistakes I made as a result, this seemed to me a fair evaluation. Years later, I learned from one of the majors on the personnel staff that this score placed me at the floor of the bottom fifth of my peer group.
Over the next couple years, as we all accumulated OERs, it became obvious that even weak officers rarely scored below 96. When the Army launched a Reduction-In-Force (RIF) of regular army officers in 1975, it came as no surprise that I was selected for involuntary separation.
Peter Drower says
Ah, USAREUR in 1970.
12th Engr Bn in Dexheim was very similar!
Jim Russell says
Pete – It’s comforting to know that the integrity rot of that Vietnam era was not exclusively a Cav problem. Actually, comforting is not the right word, but you know what I mean.
DAVE WALLESTAD says
USAREUR 1970, AH! INDEED, 94TH ARTILLERY, FURTH/BAY
James Richard McDonough says
Good for you for both sticking to your guns and knowing what the criteria demanded. It is a shame that you were hammered for your honesty.
You go to the top of the top fifth for that in my book.
Jim Russell says
Jim – Thanks for the vote of confidence. Coming from a classmate, it means a lot.
DENIS GULAKOWSKI says
I’m assuming that none of these “superior” officers were grads?
Jim Russell (C-3) says
Denis – For whatever reason, my chain of command and that cav squadron had a dearth of West Point grads. The only other grad in the squadron was our classmate John LaBelle, who was doing his year of Armor detail before moving on to Military Intelligence branch. My rater, endorser, and reviewer (whom I never met) were all non-grads. I like to think that lack of grads had some impact on what happened. But in that era of widespread inflated body counts and deflated deadline reports, it’s hard to know whether grads in my mix would have made much real difference. After all, why hadn’t SOMEONE questioned my predecessor’s tiny deadline report, when the vehicles involved were well-known maintenance challenges? There had to be some grads reading those reports SOMEWHERE upstream, and yet, all those lies were just accepted and passed on. It was a hard time for our Army; the conspiracy to lie seemed nearly universal. Sad that it took an ignorant new lieutenant to call foul.
John Seck says
I somewhat know of what you speak. I was XO of a Cav troop out of Bad Hersfeld at the same time. On our 50 km retrograde exercise, starting at the border, we left many troop vehicles “deadlined” throughout the countryside. Our VTR spent the night roving through narrow roads and country lanes to do retrievals, without the aid of GPS or cell phones. Thanks mainly to the NCOs, the O-5s and O-6s were able to maintain their “paper” positions.
I think I briefly followed in your footsteps in 1972 at a firebase on the road to An Loc. I definitely agree with Jim McDonough’s assessment!
Jim Russell says
John – Bad Hersfeld sounds like a similar situation to Schweinfurt. Probably those standards had become universal by the time we arrived in USAREUR. I’m grateful Moscow never tested our readiness to repel them. A lot of good soldiers would have died., many of them avoidably.
When I was (lightly) wounded on 23 June 1972, I was part of DCAT (Division Combat Advisory Team) 99, so named because we “advised” the 33rd ARVN Infantry Regiment. (Go figure.) My boss was LTC Jerry Morgan, Infantry, a good guy. I think I was backfilled by our classmate Fred Mott. Did you later go there as well?
John Seck says
No, I was the filler for 2 days. I was an advisor in the 18th ARVIN Infantry Division and spent that day at 7,000 feet in a C&C chopper supporting insertion of an ARVN regiment in An Loc. When I landed, hoping to get some rest, I was met on the flight line with an ARVN driver and direction to head north on the road to your firebase to temporarily replace a Captain who had been wounded. As the sun was setting, and we rounded a curve near the firebase, your LTC radioed that he would be next to the road waving his helmet; that we should pick him up; drive into the firebase (which was cooking off from a round that hit the ammo storage area); jump into a bunker; and send the driver back down the road. I spent the next two days there, until your backfill arrived. I often wondered how guys like you could “do that for a living”, but as I said, I was grateful to briefly follow in your footsteps. I trust all has been much better for both of us in the years that have followed. Thanks for the reply.
William J. Bahr says
It appears you’re right in line with our “Foundingest Father.” From my book “George Washington’s Liberty Key” (GW’s personal challenge to “you”): “There is but one straight course, and that is to seek truth and pursue it steadily.” – GW, 31 July 1795.
Congratulations on a job well done!
Best regards & BOTL,
Jim Russell says
Bill – Your comment establishes a new precedent: First time I’ve been mentioned in the same paragraph as George Washington. You humble me.
Ralph Crosby says
A true representation of the state of USAREUR in 1970.
I had a similar experience after taking command of C Troop, 2nd Cav in Bindlach on the Czech Border in August 1970.
After a few months my First Sergeant hustled in the office and declared, “Sir, the regimental commander is on the phone. Never having met the man, I cautiously took the phone in an unsteady hand, and said, “Yes, Sir”. There followed a short inquisition about the low level of re-enlistments in C Troop, and the valid assertion that I had publicly stated that I would not compete for high re-enlistment numbers. “Is that true Crosby?” Remembering our earlier training, I chose one of the three appropriate answers—“Yes, Sir”. When he asked for explanation, I explained that the only reason soldiers re-enlisted in my part of the 2nd ACR was to be able to choose an assignment somewhere else—even Vietnam, to get out of the unit. He listened and quietly said, “Now I understand. Carry on.” When I next saw him sometime later was the day he awarded C Troop, troop of the year in the Regiment, where he mentioned our discussion about reenlistment as a positive factor in our selection. He also mentioned it in his endorsement of my OER.
Different leader than yours, Jim.
Jim Russell says
I like your story better than mine.
I did not know you had served in Bindlach, as did I later. I joined 1/2 ACR in January, 1973. When I stepped off the train at the Bayreuth Bahnhof, I was greeted by my sponsor, CPT Pete Schoomacher, C Troop CO and a really good man. For the duration of my year-plus in Bindlach, C Troop remained the best unit in the squadron by far. Possibly also in the regiment; hard to know from my perspective. Evidently your C Troop successors continued the tradition you started. Pete, as you know, became Army Chief of Staff, quite deservedly.
Other guys in that squadron who later also did OK:
LTC Nick Krawciw, ’59, Squadron CO, rose to MG before being medically retired, related to Vietnam wounds; he was terrific and would certainly have made GEN; as a firstie, he had been Pete Dawkins’ Bde XO. He was the E-3 Tac when we were cadets.
MAJ Bill Crouch, Squadron XO, later Colonel of the Regiment, USAREUR CG, and Army Vice-Chief of Staff, also well-deserved;
CPT Tommy Franks, How Bty CO, later CENTCOM CG,.
Not bad for one little cav squadron, way out on the tip of the spear.
Mike Colacicco says
I went through something similar when I took command of my company in Vietnam. Fortunately, I was able to explain what I planned to the brigade S-3. He understood and agreed with my position.
Greg Smith says
A fine story. “The harder right…..”
Jim Russell says
Greg – Thanks. I was unsure how this essay would be received. Your comment is much appreciated.
Eric Robyn says
Jim, thanks for sharing this sad story, which accurately reflects the condition of USAREUR and our Army in the 70s, in my experience. “Pencil whipping” reports was one of many pathologies that needed to be rooted out as the Army went through its transformation in the late 70s and 80s. You chose the harder right and have my respect, brother. Well done!